Colloquy IV: Bilingual Shakespeare

Hello everyone – Liz Bernardo again, here to blog this session. This Colloquy IV is on Bilingual Shakespeare. The chair for this session is Joe Falocco of Texas State University. The presenters for this session are Ian Borden of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Tyrone Giordano of Gallaudet University, and Michael Saenger of Southeastern University. This session is in the Augusta Room of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. Live blogging of this session runs from nine to ten fifteen this morning.

Borden explains his presentation What if Shakespeare Wrote for Actresses? Examining the Work of Lope de Vega as a Lens of Possibility for 21st Century Productions of Early Modern English Drama. Borden wonders if we have a skewed understanding of female characters on the early modern age due to Shakespeare writing for male actors, even in female characters. He speaks to the differences between Restoration female characters, who had greater liberty than female characters in early modern drama. He states that the early modern stage always reinserts female characters into the patriarchal system. He draws comparisons between early modern plays and de Vega plays in Spain. Borden talks about de presenti vows in The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and the censurship of the Duchess who lives outside of the cultural norms. He notes that in de Vega’s version, the Duchess’ moral standing stays in tact. He compares the two and points out that the British version focuses on violence, which is not central to the Spanish version. He compares the Shakespeare and de Vega versions of Romeo and Juliet. Borden has scholars read from a translation of a scene from the de Vega version of the story. He points out Julia’s active role in the Spanish version and the comedic, rather than tragic, ending in the British version. He hopes to enlighten our views of female characters of the early modern stage by a comparison to their Spanish equivalents.

Saenger’s Shakespeare and Multilinguistic Affairs looks at conections between Ben Jonson and Shakespeare’s language. He speaks to the iconography of Shakespeare as a unifying force in English language. He speaks that modern cultures, especially cinema, undoes Shakespeare’s English. He speaks about adaptations, that must confront issues of language. He speaks about the dilemmas of performance to modernize or not and the ever-expanding contexts that Shakespeare is performed in. He states that adaptations are now the norm, rather than radical. He points out that cultural adaptations now often mix languages. He states that Shakespeare’s London was multilingual, hosting many Protestants, both in the streets and in the translated and printed books. He states that many linguistic modes mingled in Shakespeare’s day. He points out Shakespeare’s mix of languages, such as French in Henry V and Welsh in Henry IV Part I. He points out that Shakespeare’s foreign and magnetic Cleopatra implies the unreliability of English language in the presence of foreign influences. He states that several influences entered the English language since Shakespeare’s day. Saenger states that Shakespeare engaged in interlinguistic engagement, just as we live in a multilingual environment today.

Falocco begins his presentation with an introduction. He speaks of a desire to produce The Comedy of Errors where the characters from Syracuse speak English and the characters from Ephesus speak Spanish. In the production of this play, Falocco realized that several times characters speak English and Spanish to each other. He found the opening scene with Egeon difficult to translate between the two languages, which he solved with the creation of a character named The Bilingual Soldier who translated and acted out the speech into the new language. He explains that the Bilingual Soldier used a version of southwestern Spanish that “killed” in Texas.

Giordano signs his presentation with a translator. He states that he is in charge of the Folio exhibit that comes later this year. He shows a video about Shakespeare and translation issues with American Sign Language. The video comes from a project, #transformSHX. He explains that he does bilingual Shakespeare because Shakespeare is so ingrained into the curriculum, but translators must translate the text. He explains that the adaptation of the texts can be very limited and that often the deaf community must start at step one. He adds that there is a strong resistance to Shakespeare in the deaf community, but states that exploring Shakespeare with the integration of the deaf experience aids in embracing Shakespeare.

Falocco states that a unifying theme seems to be a call for diversity in theatre. He then opens the floor for questions. Student Melinda Marks asks Falocco the extent to which he workshopped his bilingual production of The Comedy of Errors. Falocco replies that the actor translating to Spanish as the Bilingual Soldier in his production would live-translate the Egeon speech every night. Marks points out that the Spanish speaking characters in the play seemed to rely more on hand gestures than language.

Student Sophia Beratta also asks Falocco if he was troubled to speak his English role (Egeon) with a translator (the Bilingual Soldier) translating what his words. Falocco replies that he did not have trouble. He adds that neither his Dromios nor Antipholuses experienced confusion too, whom he double cast into both roles with one pair speaking English and another pair speaking Spanish. He clarifies, with a question from Marks, that the production brought doubles on at the end of Comedy of Errors.

Beratta asks Giordano how ASL handles Shakespearean prose and verse. He explains that different hand shapes and repetition illustrate verse onstage and that audiences can see the meter and rhythm change to prose onstage with sign language. He states that other staging elements also help to amplify the changes. Marks asks a question about Shakespeare in international sign language. Lindsey, Giordano’s translator, speaks about translating Shakespeare into sign language in foreign countries. She states that translators in this case can either work from a translation to their native language or the base English text in order to translate to sign language. She points out that different colloquialisms appear locally. Giordano explains a difference between signing and gesturing and states that there are different sign languages for different cultures, even within the same native language. Giordano calls for translation straight to ASL from the original Shakespeare text. He hopes to develop a set method of translation for the future.

A scholar asks how signing works in Shakespeare with occupied hands. Giordano demonstrates that signing can still occur when the hands are in use. He states that violence and fight is different, but points out that ASL actors can play with both the fight and the language, which becomes solid in the rehearsal process. Falocco asks about different languages in sign language, particularly of British Sign Language productions. Giordano states that there have been BSL productions of Shakespeare. A scholar asks if there is a difference between BSL and ASL productions of Shakespeare. Giordano states that differences would depend on the direction. He also states that signing bilingual performers will honor the hearing audiences, but that hearing performers often do not honor deaf audience members.

Falocco ends with a plug for BXSW in Texas and encourages scholars and students to submit to present a paper at the conference. He encourages those within driving distance of Austin to travel to visit the conference.

Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy #5: Asides and Villainy

Good morning! I’m Cass Morris, and I’ll be liveblogging one of this morning’s six colloquy sessions: “Asides and Villainy”.

Chairs: Laury Magnus and Walter Cannon

Participants: Julia Griffin, Alan Hickman, Arthur Kinney, Caroline Latta, David Loehr, Ashley Pierce, Deb Streusand

Magnus and Cannon open the introductions, then have the participants introduce themselves and their favorite villains. Loehr’s is Richard III, Streusand’s is Mendoza, but favorite in Shakespeare is Claudius. Pierce says she loves them all, but claims Tybalt as a “twist my arm” top choice. Kinney’s is Iago, as is Hickman’s; Latta has chosen the Queen from Cymbeline.

Magnus notes that, for villains, asides are both secretive and attention-getters. She goes on to discuss several different types or purposes of asides as used by villains, including letting the audience in on their plans. She also notes, quoting Jim Hirsch, that villains can also deliver “asides” which are actually staged for the benefit of other on-stage characters, as with Edmund in King Lear. She adds that while there are comic villains who use asides, their use as a purposeful strategem seems more characteristic of dramatic villains.

By way of defining villains, via Charney: they “establish a network of evil”, they like to kill, they are arbitrary & irrational, they lack belief in anything greater than themselves, they try to present selves as plain and unadorned speakers, and soliloquies and asides are important to them.

Latta shares thoughts from an actor on soliloquies as discussions with the audience, then says she “began to obsess over how many different kinds of asides I could identify”. She shares a “taxonomy of asides”, with designations including: shared asides, conversational asides/solo asides, partial asides (by way of adlib/improv/impromptu remarks), whispered asides, shared onstage asides, visual/gestural asides, withdrawal asides/”fauxversations”, rapt soliloquy, cOCSading asides.

Streusand worked on The Malcontent, wherein the hero and villain “get more or less an equal amount of soliloquies”. She frames this as a competition for the audience’s interest and attention. Mendoza does not pretend to be a plain speaker, setting him apart from the typical Shakespearean mold.

Loehr worked on Richard III, noting that he is “an actor in life”, taking on various roles for his own self-interest. Throughout the play, he acts for everyone around him, showing his true self only to the audience and sometimes to his accomplice Buckingham. Loehr, Streusand, and Pierce read through a scene wherein Richard has examples of both overheard and non-overheard asides; the overheard aside forces Richard to adapt to the immediate circumstance. Loehr also notes that Richard takes a comic joy in his own villainy, demonstrated in the jokes he shares with the audience.

Kinney begins by saying, “We’re all trying to work out how villains make asides, and I’m trying to figure out how asides make villains.” He is looking at Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, which lacks a clear villain.

Pierce has looked at both Tybalt and Iago. Though a small speaking role, Tybalt often still receives treatment as the villain of Romeo and Juliet. He has no prescribed asides, but there are two moments where performatively he is “alone” on stage, and they are the only moments when he speaks in rhyming couplets. “When Tybalt is wanting to kill and cannot kill, he speaks in rhymes to himself.” Iago not only uses asides, but uses them to his advantage. Pierce gives an example from 3.2, in which he comments on Desdemona and Cassio in earshot of Othello, but plays it off as an aside. Pierce claims that “[Iago] is fully aware of the impact of asides”. Magnus wonders if there are often verbal markers like “O” or “Ha” to villains’ asides.

Hickman is looking at Malvolio, often deemed a comedic villain in tragic circumstances. He notes that modern productions tend to “pile on the pathos”. Hickman theorizes that Malvolio does not begin the play as a villain but is one by the end: “Some are born villainous, some achieve villainous, others have villainy thrust upon them.”

Latta, working on the Queen in Cymbeline, distinguishes her from Charney’s definition of villainy — she is a careful plotter rather than irrational; she is capable of murder but does not treat it as a game; her interest is more for her son than for her own self. So, in considering her as a villain, “she is, but on her own terms.” She then uses student Glenn Thompson and Loehr to illustrate an instance of the “fauxversation” between Cymbeline and the Queen while Cloten talks elsewhere.

An auditor questions the use of asides taken to particular portions of the audience; colloquy members note that at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the gallant stools are often used in that way. Another auditor mentions that prologues often point out different sections of the audience.

Auditor Thompson questions the categorization of Malvolio as villain, and if it’s possible under Charney’s definition to identify Toby, Maria, et al as the real villains, particularly since Malvolio is generally acted upon rather than acting. Hickman notes that, “Malvolio drives Sir Toby to marriage, so he’s a villain.” Another auditor points out what Shakespeare chose to name the character, which literally means “evil wishes”.

In the last few minutes, Magnus redirects the focus to the performers in the room about the demands that asides place on an actor. Latta suggests that the specification of audience members is advantageous to bringing the audience in but also a challenge, since it requires making decisions swiftly in the moment. Loehr describes it as “making that person your scene partner”. Streusand comments that the audience member’s response also affects how the actor can deliver the aside. Pierce notes the “close connection” with the audience as one of the biggest advantages of acting at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Cannon closes by posing a curiosity about the definition of villains and villainy and if it’s substantial or adequate, and offers a thought experiment regarding the character of Hal/Henry V.

–Cass Morris
OCS Academic Resources Manager

Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Colloquy Session VI: Shakespeare’s Life and Times: Contributing Context

Welcome to the 2015 Blackfriars Conference Colloquy, “Shakespeare’s Life and Times: Contributing Context.”   Kate McPherson of Utah Valley University and Kate Moncrief of Washington College chaired the colloquy session.  Dwight Tanner of UNC-Chapel HillWilliam Jones, Associate Professor of English at Murray State University and Karoline Szatek-Tudor of Curry College presented their papers as part of the colloquy.

Internet Shakespeare Editions has been operating now for fifteen years. The website,http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/,  includes a section covering Shakespeare’s ‘Life and Times’.  Michael Best originally created ISE as a CD-ROM in the late 1990s, and today the website receives 250,000 internet hits per month.  The idea behind the website’s organization has been for the user to be able to read its contents as a book, from the beginning of an article to the end of another.  Now, in a three- to five year-project, the site design is being overhauled, converting it into more of an encyclopedia format.  The website’s bibliographies have not been revised in over ten years, Professor Moncrief disclosed, but the ISE intends to update all of them as part of the site’s overhaul.

The Internet Shakespeare Editions site is designed to be user-friendly to high school students, and in keeping with this intended purpose, articles are limited to a length not exceeding one thousand words.  Footnotes are presented in the form of pop-up boxes.  Each page of the website includes one or two relevant images.

Ongoing pedagogical projects will allow educators and researchers to update and revise the information on the ISE website. Edition editors will be able to click on individual topics and make suggestions.  Today’s colloquy session is devoted to discussion of International Shakespeare Edition’s website, in particular the section entitled “life and Times,” as well as the discussion of five brief articles which the site’s continuing updating project generated.

The five authors named above presented their papers, beginning with Professor Jones who talked about his web-piece, “Shakespeare and Satire,” and he distributed copies of his paper, “A 1599 Poem in Praise of Shakespeare?”  He read aloud the subject of his paper, the 1599 John Weever poem to Shakespeare, “Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare” (“To William Shakespeare”) which in his view criticizes the playwright’s “Ovidian passion.”  Professor Jones uses this poem in his classroom, he told attendees, as a discussion topic for his students, presenting them with an opportunity to weigh in on the ironic tone and the satirical object of Weever’s poem. “Ad Gulielmum Shakespeare” demonstrates, as Professor Jones put it, the passive/aggressive attitude that Puritans leveled against playwrights and Shakespeare in particular.  A contemporary of Shakespeare, Weever was an aspiring poet and would-be playwright as well as a churchman.  Shakespeare may have used Weever as at least partial inspiration when he created the part of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in his play “Twelfth Night.”

UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Dwight Tanner discussed his piece, “The Plague.”  Tanner’s article explores contagion, treatment, bureaucracy, and the plague’s impact on Early Modern Theater, particularly the impact it had upon theater owners.  The piece examines quarantine practices of the period and includes an example of a plague-victim, a man named ‘Decker.’  During the discussion, Professor Moncrief tried a site search to see how easily users can navigate to Tanner’s piece.  Eight years ago, Moncrief explained, the site managers integrated a rudimentary mobile app, and she wanted to see if it still functions and how it could be improved.

Professor Szatek-Tudor discussed as well as distributed copies of her paper, “The Twitters and Tweets of Shakespeare’s Birds in his Early Modern Plays.”  Shakespeare cited fifty-nine species of birds in his plays, though his bird allusions diminish in number in his later works, Szatek-Tudor claimed.  Shakespeare wrote about birds of prey as well as birdsas prey.  Professor Szatek-Tudor also talked about Shakespeare’s use of birds as verbs, giving as an example how Shakespeare wrote that Falstaff “quails” in fear.  She mentioned she is working on the History Plays and at the moment is looking for editing help with this.  The Professor distributed to attendees copies of an “Ornithological Chart of Some Birds in Shakespeare’s Plays” in addition to her paper.  Her chart classifies twenty-one different species of birds while grouping them under six separate classes, including “Land Birds” and “Water Bird.”  The Quail, for example, appears listed beneath the class of birds called, “Galliformes.”

Professor Moncrief discussed her article, “Childbirth.”  In the Early Modern period, a woman typically had six to ten children, she informed listeners.  Moncrief read a Jane Sharp quote from her paper and described the rest of its contents, including her paper’s references to Shakespeare’s plays, “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale.”  Most women spent their lives, she went on to tell attendees, pregnant or recovering from their pregnancies.  Her article explores the social impact of the culture’s views of morality and how that culture judged women, often disparagingly, by their pregnancies and childbirth.  The Professor discussed mortality rates in the session when she was asked about that, but she informed her listeners that she took that topic out of her piece over concerns of exceeding her article’s 1000-word length.

Lastly, Professor McPherson talked of her piece, “Early Modern Anatomy,” which explores anatomy as both subject of learning as well as spectacle.  She distributed to each attendee a copy of an illustration of The Anatomy Theatre at Leiden, circa 1540, which depicts the dissection of a human cadaver in an Early Modern operating theater.  Cadavers for dissection and study came from the gibbets and from other public executions.  The fOCSination with anatomy in that time period affected the depiction of dead bodies onstage to suit audiences’ demands for greater realism, she explained.

Blog posted by Bill Leavy, M.Litt. student, Mary Baldwin College graduate program in Shakespeare and Performance.

Wake Up Workshop: Cue Scripts

Hello everyone – Liz Bernardo, Mary Baldwin first-year student and OCS Marketing Intern, here to blog the first session this morning. This Wake Up Workshop is on cue scripts with OCS Education Artist, Mary Baldwin College MFA student, and member of Sweet Wag Shakespeare Patrick Harris at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Live blogging of this session runs from eight to eight forty-five this morning.

Harris introduces himself to the Wake Up Workshop attendees. He explains that high school students usually come to these workshops. He talks about Sweet Wag Shakespeare and Friday’s late night show, One Woman Town, where everyone can watch him perform.

Harris states that cue scripts allow actors much freedom on the stage. He explains that cue scripts were popular in early modern period, when printing scripts was expensive. He adds that his favorite part is that cue scripts only give the actor their roles, not even the title of the play. This creates some confusion because several plays have characters of the same name, such as Francisco, which is in The Tempest, Hamlet, and possibly other early modern plays. This can cause confusion with He further explains that cue scripts present a lot of performance conundrums – such as easily confused characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. Harris adds that the Actors Renaissance Season uses cue scripts to stage the performances.

A scholar asks if the OCS publishes the Renaissance Season cue scripts, and Harris states that the OCS archives cue scripts and that actors often create their own cue scripts. He adds that usually stage managers will make cue scripts too.

Harris talks about false cues, when the cue for an actor is repeated several times in the scene prior to the actual cue. He explains that this creates urgency and interruptions. He also explains shared cues, when several actors say the same line at the same time. He elaborates that this creates an atmosphere of confusion and the strange energy that comes from speaking at the same time.

Sarah Enloe, OCS Director of Education, enters the room, and Harris asks her if the OCS archives Renaissance Season cue scripts. Enloe replies that the cue scripts are, however, actors mark the cue scripts. A scholar asks if any other organization uses cue scripts. Enloe replies that the OCS partners with the Folger Shakespeare Library to create a cue script from any digitized script. She also states that before the creation of this program from the Folger, actors created their own cue scripts. Following a question about cue scripts by other theatres, Enloe replies that typically other theatres do not use cue scripts for their productions. A scholar asks if actors often wait for their cues, and Enloe answers that the OCS actors often jump right to their feet. She adds that in the Actors Renaissance Season uses other staging conditions from Shakespeare’s day such as no director or designers. She says that cue scripts give clues such as which character leads a scene, which is not always the titular character.

A scholar asks about stage directions in cue scripts. Harris takes the floor to reply that a lot of embedded stage directions are within the cue scripts. Embedded stage directions are stage directions inherent in the dialogue. Harris previews that he will talk about false cues. Harris points out that the most descriptive stage directions in this scene belong to the Ghost of Hamlet. He elaborates that these are some of the most descriptive stage directions in a script, with the exception of dumb shows.

Harris applauds the scholar who walks the cues for the Ghost of Hamlet, who listens to the information that other actors share. He points out that the scholar also chooses to enter a specific way. He asks the readers to go through the scene again and requests the Ghost to respond to the embedded cues in the script while the other characters talk about the Ghost onstage.

Harris points out that some actors might accidentally skip a few lines, especially as Horatio, who has two very similar cues of, “Mark it, Horatio,” and, “Speak to it, Horatio.” He states that a good actor, such as the reader in this session, says all of their lines in order with their memorized lines. A scholar points out that if an actor playing Horatio jumps his cue or waits for the proper cue creates a different character for Horatio: a hot-headed character or a frightened Horatio.

A scholar points out that several actors might focus on their cue line and miss information stated on the stage. Harris agrees and explains that this is the reason why he stopped the scenes so many times. He explains that during the Renaissance Season, actors may stop each other several times in order to reorient themselves. He also adds that actors during the Renaissance Season crave the audience interaction, which helps shape the play. A scholar adds that actors in the early modern period might talk to each other about their roles and prepare themselves in such a way.

Unfortunately, we are out of time, and Harris ends the session.

Introducing the BFConf15 Blogging Team

As we did in 2011 and 2013, OCS Education will be live-blogging throughout the Blackfriars Conference. Every plenary session (as well as the majority of our colloquies, staging sessions, wake-up workshops, lunch meet-ups, and assorted other events) will have a devoted post here on the blog, updated in real-time, so that those of you who can’t join us in Staunton next week will still be able to follow along with the proceedings. I am pleased and proud to introduce the following individuals who will be helping me to document the 8th Blackfriars Conference from start to finish:

Elizabeth “Liz” Bernardo is a first year student in the Mary Baldwin Shakespeare and Performance program. Liz hopes to receive her Master of Letters and a Master of Fine Arts with a concentration in Directing. She is excited to assist with live-blogging and live-tweeting for her first Blackfriars Conference and cannot wait to share insights from the speakers and presentations throughout the week.

Whitney Egbert has been a theatre actor for 20 years.  She has been based in NYC for 4 years, adding work in the midwest and east coast to her west coast beginnings.  She is currently the Managing Director for The Shakespeare Forum in NYC. She has been a teaching artist with Shakesperience Productions, Inc., Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Forum, South Dakota Shakespeare Festival, and LaGuardia Community College.  Theatre credits include: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost (The Shakespeare Forum); As You Like It (South Dakota Shakespeare Festival); Platonov (Columbia Stages); Romeo and Juliet (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival); Much Ado About NothingOthello (Hip to Hip Theatre); Romeo and JulietJulius Caesar (Shakesperience Productions); Fat Pig, It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play (Salem Repertory). B.A.: University of Portland. www.whitneyjegbert.com

Mary Finch is a first year M.Litt student in Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance program. When not in the midst of academics, she writes for Shakespeare Magazine as their US Staff Writer. She also dabbles in acting and enjoys spreading the love of Shakespearean theatre through education.

Bill Leavy is a first year M.Litt student with Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance program. He holds an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College Graduate Institute and he earned his BA in Theater at the University of Albany. He entered the acting profession twenty years ago and is a proud member of Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild. Among his favorite stage roles are Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol and Lucius in a staged reading of Titus Andronicus with the Orlando Shakespeare Company. Bill’s paper on Shakespeare’s Richard II is available online at http://www.academia.edu. He is excited to be attending his first Blackfriars Conference and looks forward to attending many more in the future.

Merlyn Sell is currently a third year MFA student in Mary Baldwin College’s Shakespeare and Performance program.  Prior to her stint at MBC, Merlyn could be found on and behind stages in California’s Wine Country.  Merlyn is the publicity lead for Sweet Wag Shakespeare and will be directing their As You Like It this December.  Her future hopes include beginning a Shakespeare theatre in her home town of Deadwood, South Dakota.

Molly Beth Seremet is currently an M.Litt Candidate in Shakespeare and Performance at Mary Baldwin College.  She holds an M.Res with Distinction in Performance and Creative Research from London’s University of Roehampton.  She has worked professionally in Europe and the United States as an actor, dancer, and deviser.  Her writing has been published in Activate and Platform e-journals and Praxis Magazine. She works frequently with her own company, the New York City-based Morse Code Theatre.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will be livestreaming select keynotes and the Thursday morning, Wednesday afternoon, and Saturday morning sessions. Look for links on the OCS Twitter feed: @shakespearectr, and be sure to follow the official conference hashtag, #BFConf15, for other tidbits!

Check out the schedule of events on the OCS website, and come back here starting Wednesday, October 28th, at 8am, for all of our real-time updates.

–Cass Morris
Academic Resources Manager

American Shakespeare Center Director of Mission’s Response to the Shakespeare Translation Project

As most Shakespeare nerds know by now, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, America’s largest Shakespeare theatre, has undertaken an ambitious project they are calling “Play On!” in which 39 playwrights and 39 dramaturges will undertake to “translate” 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English.  This announcement has provoked the predictable amount of consternation throughout the Shakespeare world, enough consternation that as the Director of Mission of the American Shakespeare Center, whose mission is to recover the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare’s theatre, language, and humanity… through performance and education, I would like to share my thoughts on this project, both positive and negative, with our many friends.

Here’s what I like about the project:

(1) To begin with, I applaud the size, scope, and ambition of the project.

Ever since Bill Rauch, OSF’s Artistic Director, arrived in Ashland in 2007, he has brought to the Festival the kind of expansive vision of a theatre of the people, by the people, and for the people.  That vision undergirded his first project, Cornerstone Theatre, in which Bill and his colleagues, fresh out of Harvard, would go into communities without theatres and create a production with the citizens.  That vision – so American in its principles and in its optimism – was also the foundation for his first big project at OSF, American Revolutions: the U.S. History Cycle, for which he has commissioned American playwrights to attempt to create a collection of plays that helps define America in the way that Shakespeare’s history plays helped to define England.  One offspring of that project, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way about LBJ and the civil rights movement, has already won the Tony for Outstanding Play.

The “Play On!” project matches Bill Rauch’s other work, and in its intention to create Shakespeare scripts of the people, by the people, and for the people, it matches as well the giving and inclusiveness that informs OSF under his remarkable leadership.  To appreciate what he has accomplished, locate Ashland, Oregon, on a map, and you will see that it’s a small city (Staunton’s size) in the isolated southwest corner of Oregon, five hours from Portland.  Always devoted to first-class work, the Festival’s location trapped it more than most urban Shakespeare companies in the predominant Shakespeare audience base of affluent and aging white people – a place to get away from the world rather than a place to engage it.  I do not know how their new programming has changed their audience demographics, but the increased diversity of the actors and staff at OSF and the emphasis on musicals and new plays have certainly made the season’s offerings look less daunting to non-Shakespeare fans as well as more interesting to experienced theatre-goers who are looking for something new and would rather not see their tenth production of Macbeth.

(2) Some good that will come from the “Play On!” project.

Already it has prompted the kind of controversy that keeps the importance of Shakespeare in the public view.  It’s made people think about their experiences seeing and hearing Shakespeare. It’s giving employment to 39 playwrights and – even more rarely – a like number of dramaturges.  And that means, inevitably, that by the end of the project, 78 very smart people, who have wrestled with replacing Shakespeare’s words (as our actors do when they try to paraphrase their lines) will be in awe of his skill, and they will approach their crafts both with more humility and with more skill.

I hope that once the scripts are all in, OSF will plan a grand convocation of these men and women to talk about their experience of trying to retain, in the words of OSF’s Director of Literary Development Lue Douthit, “the rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme” of the original.  Lue, if you’re reading this, please invite me to that occasion.  I promise not to say a word, just soak in the inevitable awe these re-creators will feel faced with what Andrew Hartley, in the answering question “Why Shakespeare?” (The Shakespeare Dramaturg, p.70), calls the “unequaled…poignancy or precision” of Shakespeare’s words and phrases “unparalleled elsewhere.”   Our actors feel it every time they play a role; our students feel it every time they study a line.  Imagine what 36 playwrights and 36 dramaturges will feel after trying to put an entire play into their own words.

(3) Clearly this project does no harm to Shakespeare, even in Ashland.

OSF assures fans of Shakespeare that over the next ten years they will produce all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original and that “one or more of” the plays created “may be produced along with the original canon.”  These scripts will be food for readings and discussion around the country. Shakespeare’s works have always stood up to the “translation” – in a real sense, every production is a new “translation.”  Changing words, characters, scenes, plots – none of that is new. Whenever I direct a production, I’ll change a word or twenty.  In our current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream “on her withered dewlap” became “on her withered bosom”; and the fairies’ lullaby to Titania about “spotted snakes” became a soft shoe version of “By the Light of Silvery Moon.”  Am I ashamed?  Kind of.  Is Shakespeare rolling in his grave?  No seismic activity in Stratford-upon-Avon has been reported.

As our board member Kim West pointed out, this kind of “translation has been going on since Nahum Tate updated King Lear in 1681.”  Who knows how many Nahum Tates the project might produce?  In one way or another every play is only the first version of a work, changed with each production; and all of this reworking of Shakespeare in whatever language, in whatever medium, from musicals to film to comic books to TV sitcoms to Andy Griffith’s radio retelling of Romeo and Juliet, never lessened the value of his work – all of this has only given the originals more currency.

Here’s what I don’t like about the project:

(1) The OSF project assumes that Shakespeare’s language is not our language.

The rationale for the project is that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand because his language is too far from our own and that audiences of a far wider range would enjoy the plays better if they were written in contemporary language.  I don’t like this rationale, because I think the assumption it makes about Shakespeare’s language is wrong and the assumption it makes about what audiences are capable of enjoying underestimates audiences, actors, and the nature of theatre.

Yes, we could all use larger vocabularies, but if you’re going to start simplifying language to reach those who don’t have a large enough vocabulary, then don’t pick on Shakespeare without picking on Shaw, Wilde, Coward, Williams, Churchill, Stoppard, and Sondheim.  For that matter go after Deadwood, West Wing, Justified, Game of Thrones, and Star Trek. Shoot, go after Sesame Street.

The Wall Street Journal’s John McWhorter approves wholeheartedly of the project and tells us that 10% of the words in Shakespeare are “incomprehensible.”  That number vastly exaggerates the number of archaic words in Shakespeare and ignores altogether the way context – the other words being spoken and the way the actor speaks them – helps us comprehend.  In fact, 98% of Shakespeare’s words are either in our dictionaries as current usage English or as a close cousin of the current English.

(2) The OSF project robs from rather than adds to the meaning of the plays.

It ignores the pleasure of the unconscious experience of comprehending expanded meaning.  For example, here’s a passage from Macbeth that McWhorter wants updated. It’s Macbeth considering whether he should kill the King, Duncan:

………………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

so clear in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his taking-off.

McWhorter prefers this “translation” by Conrad Spoke:

………………Besides, this Duncan

hath borne authority so meek, hath been

so pure in his great office, that his virtues

will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

the deep damnation of his knocking-off.

McWhorter would substitute “authority” for “faculties” because he says he doesn’t know what “bearing one’s faculties” means. He doesn’t? Today we use “faculties” to mean “abilities,” – the very first definition in Merriam Webster – and pretty precisely what Shakespeare meant.  In fact the substituted “authority” is not what Macbeth is talking about.  Nor is the substituted “pure in office” the same as the original “clear in his office.”  Jimmy Carter was “pure” in his office; Ronald Reagan was “clear.” Shakespeare’s “clear” could hardly be clearer.

Most alarmingly, McWhorter champions “knocking-off” for “taking-off.”  He would choose a current slang word for “murder” instead of Macbeth’s invented phrase “taking-off.”  But even children listening to Macbeth contemplate this murder would know what “taking-off” means, and they would also know – as would the actor playing the part – that it’s a feeble euphemism, that Macbeth can’t bring himself even to say “murder,” and that is the real story of this moment. The actor performing the “translated” line would lose this moment, and the audiences listening to that “translation” would lose this insight into the mind of a man for the first time considering the murder.  Shakespeare’s word – easy to comprehend in context – provides the full understanding, whereas in McWhorter’s term the substituted word gives us only a “half understanding.”

(3) The OSF project ignores the joy of acquiring language.

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time.  The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings.  In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

We do that too – with Stoppard and Pinter and Beckett plays; with comedians Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, and Stephen Colbert; with television like Key and Peele and Wired, with lyricists from Sondheim to Notorious B.I.G.  Even when some of it flies by us, we enjoy the rush of new words in new arrangements.

(4) The OSF project endorses ShakesFear.

We go to Shakespeare unnecessarily afraid, worried about missing something, worried about vocabulary as though we were taking the SAT.  That irrational and unhelpful worry I call ShakesFear, and my main objection to the OSF project is that it endorses ShakesFear, and in doing so it misunderstands the nature of theatre and underestimates the genius of audiences.  It promotes the anxiety about Shakespeare that is a primary obstacle to its enjoyment.

(5) The OSF project takes actors and directors off the hook.

Play On!” shifts the responsibility for “comprehensible” Shakespeare to these 39 playwrights and away from actors and directors who themselves are uninterested in the way the language in the plays work.

Actors who don’t know precisely what the words are can’t make up the difference with an emotional wash, and directors whose aim is foremost the imposition of a concept can sometimes make comprehension harder.  As James Shapiro writes in The New York Times, “To understand Shakespeare’s characters, actors have long depended on the hints of meaning and shadings of emphasis that he embedded in his verse.  They will search for them in vain in the translation.”

From the day Jim Warren and I started the company, the American Shakespeare Center has made the comprehension of Shakespeare’s language and an understanding of the way the meter and the syntax work the first business of rehearsal.  We are continually looking for the ways that staging can clarify meaning for his audiences.  We don’t always get it right in our fight against ShakesFear, but repeatedly we hear from audiences, “That was the first time I had no trouble understanding the play” or “I forgot it was Shakespeare” or – our favorite – “That was great. Who translated it into modern English?” And then we get to tell the patron that the words were Shakespeare’s and that he himself effortlessly did the “translation.”

The greatest gift of a good Shakespeare production is this kind of unconscious “translation” – an occasion when performance combines with the wellspring of our language to enlarge us.

(6) The OSF project condescends to certain audiences.

My final concern about the OSF project is the soft discrimination of its low expectations.  As I have said, the plan is meant to be a part of OSF’s admirable push to make Shakespeare of the people, by the people, and for the people.  But those people are less in need of help than OSF imagines.  Children are always swimming in a sea of new language; it’s how they learn.  For an adult, Much Ado about Nothing may be harder than The Important of Being Earnest, but for the eight-year-old, they present similar challenges – or, depending on your point of view, opportunities.  The OSF project would deprive the very audiences it’s concerned about of those opportunities by creating a kind of “separate but equal” Shakespeare.

OSF’s project, in worrying about making Shakespeare easier, endorses the wrong idea that Shakespeare is too hard. But it is just the right kind of hard. In the words of our Associate Artistic Director, Jay McClure, “Shakespeare is not easy; it is not neat, it is not without complications; it is not always understandable. Just like life. And just like life, it is miraculous.  And it is work.  And it is worth it.”

As I said at the start, the OSF project has done all of us a favor by raising the issue of how we deal with the rich gift of Shakespeare.  First thing we do, let’s not underrate it.

Ralph Alan Cohen

OCS Co-founder and Director of Mission

 

*This post was edited on 10/10 to correct the numbering in the second section and correct “quipped” to

“equipped.”