Play On Shakespeare: Reflections from the translation project’s festival of staged readings

Play On festival opening
Play On Executive Director Lue Douthit gives remarks before the festival’s first staged reading: The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Lue Morgan Douthit first wrote about the Play on! project (of which she is the executive director) on the Shakespeare & Beyond blog in February 2018. Since then, we’ve published 10 Q&As with playwrights and dramaturgs engaged in the work of translating Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English. They shared insights into the translation process and why Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate with audiences today.

In January 2019 the project spun off from its home at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and became Play On Shakespeare, and last month the 39 play translations came to life at a festival of staged readings in New York. Douthit wraps up our Play on! blog post series with initial reflections from the festival, just days after the whirlwind came to a close.

The Play On Shakespeare Translation Festival at Classic Stage Company in New York was both a culmination and a beginning.

Let’s start with the numbers:

  • 39 staged readings in 33 days;
  • 143 actors, of which more than 60 participated in the entire five weeks, with 40 more who participated in more than one reading;
  • 33 playwrights and 23 dramaturgs who participated in rehearsal and/or attended the reading of their translation;
  • 34 directors, 16 stage managers, 6 production assistants, 4 producers;
  • At least 80,000 pieces of three-hole punch paper; 30 music stands; 120 three ring binders;
  • And one patron. (That would be Dave Hitz, who also co-founded Play on Shakespeare with me in January.)

We began with Two Gentlemen of Verona and ended with Two Noble Kinsmen. In the first week we staged the “apprentice” plays from early in Shakespeare’s career. Next came the “poetic” week with King John, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Merchant of Venice. The third week highlighted Shakespeare’s mastery, covering the plays written in 1599. The fourth week had some very dark plays, like Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well, Timon of Athens, King Lear, and Macbeth. The fifth and final week brought in the magic and the willing suspension of disbelief with Pericles, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Cymbeline, and Two Noble Kinsmen.

We borrowed aspects of the acting company model from the rotating repertory system of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which meant that each week there were eight teams of actors. We capped the time for rehearsal and the reading itself to 29 hours over the course of four days. We also embraced cast doubling, as I was determined to learn if these plays can be produced with nine to 12 actors. (They can!)

We had tested these translations in front of audiences long before this festival, and so I had a pretty good idea how the translations might be received. The goal of this festival was not to convince anyone of the merit of the project, but rather to test the plays’ performability. We added directors to the process and asked them to stage the readings. We offered minimal sound cues (so many trumpets announcing arrivals!) and some props (Hamlet needed a skull, right?)

I had no idea there are so many different ways to stage a reading! I thought we would be doing the usual “go to music stand #3” garden variety, and while most of the readings did use music stands, no one used them the same way twice! I will never look at music stands as just music stands ever again, after they were used as lances during the tournament in Pericles.

Character Connections, Genre, and Humor

The experience of listening to 39 plays placed somewhat chronologically allowed me to follow the course of Shakespeare’s writing career. There are lots of conventions, devices, speeches, and character types that carry forward. And those were fun to follow.

For example, hearing Polonius talk about playing Julius Caesar and Hamlet talk about once being Brutus had an extra meaning for those of us who had heard the reading of Julius Caesar the night before. Perhaps, in Shakespeare’s company, the actor playing Polonius would have also played Julius Caesar, and the actor playing Hamlet would have played Brutus. Hamlet stabbing Polonius suddenly had this strange echo in our mind’s eye. In our Festival, we weren’t able to cast the actors in back-to-back readings, which would have made that connection visibly clear, but the audience for Hamlet brought it up in the talkback.

The biggest takeaway for me has to do with genre. Shakespeare does not write the same play twice. While Hemings and Condell did an amazing thing by printing these plays in the First Folio, they didn’t do the plays any favors by categorizing them into three genres (comedies, histories, and tragedies). Somehow today we have the impression that genres are pure. They are not. Audiences and Play On participants would remark about how funny Shakespeare is, and not just in the comedies.

And that’s because the plays are structured to elicit different emotions, not designed for us to only laugh or only cry. Life is in a perpetual state of change, and our lives can irrevocably change in a moment. Plays document these transitions. The stakes in a comedy are deeply felt and serious, and in moments of great tragedy, there are always moments of levity. When Shakespeare juxtaposes these, the audience often responds with laughter.

Play On: The Future

The overwhelming sense we received from audiences is that this is an experiment worth pursuing. And there were many people who expressed interest in reading them. So our next step is getting them published.

But first, I need a nap. Thirty-nine plays in 33 days took its toll on me. Especially on my derriere! (I now have a new appreciation for the standing section at The Globe.)