Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Elaine Pritchard from Caittom Publishing interviewed Play On! Shakespeare director Lue Morgan Douthit, who visited us from the US to run a workshop on Measure for Measure.

ELAINE: Thanks for such an inspirational workshop today, Lue. What is Play On! Shakespeare and how did it come about?

Lue Morgan Douthit, director of Play On! ShakespeareLUE: Many people will be familiar with the No Fear Shakespeare editions that feature the full text of Shakespeare’s play with a side-by-side translation into modern-day language by academics, so that people can easily understand what is being said. Play On! Shakespeare has taken a very different approach. Established playwrights have been commissioned to create a translation of 39 Shakespeare plays but they were asked to keep the beat and rhythm of the poetry, the heightened language and the scenic structure of the original text. They were told not to cut anything and not to ‘dumb down’ the play, but just to make the changes that were necessary to let a 21st-century audience experience the plays with the ease that a 16th-century audience would have enjoyed. ‘Do no harm’ is how I summarise the brief that I gave to writers.

It was Dave Hitz, a long-time supporter and patron of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who first approached festival organisers with the idea that he would pay to commission the translation of a Shakespeare play into modern-day English. As director of literary development and dramaturgy at the OSF at the time, this project landed in my lap. Three years later, after some experimentation and the production of a translated Timon of Athens, I decided to ‘go big or stay home’ and in 2015 it was announced that all 39 Shakespeare plays were going to be translated. Dave’s support made this massive three-year project.

Four hundred years ago, I reckon audiences at a Shakespeare play would have understood 80% of the dialogue without having to work at it. Today I reckon it’s more like 40%. What started as a small pilot project under the wings of the OSF has now spun off to become an independent, non-profit called Play On! Shakespeare.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE script - Shakespeare on the left, Aditi Kapil's translation on the right © Play On! ShakespeareELAINE: What are the main aims of Play On! Shakespeare?

LUE: The new translations are written to be spoken, heard, experienced. Aditi [Kapil, whose translation of Measure for Measure was the focus in the workshop] has said that in her first draft, some passages ‘worked’ on the page but they weren’t as clear when they were read out loud. As a result some more radical interventions were needed. 

I knew I wanted established dramatists to work on these translations because they are used to wrestling with how to select and combine materials and move the play in an active way that everyone in the audience gets to the same place at the same time and we all move forward and onward together. Isn’t that the goal, that we all go to the finish line together?

ELAINE: Tell me a bit more about the radical interventions that Aditi made in Measure for Measure.

play-on-workshopLUE: Let's take Act 4 Scene 3 as an example. This is Pompey's speech where he talks directly to the audience and pokes fun at them and chastises them for hypocrisy. This often cut in productions because it has lost the comedy and relevance it had for audiences 400 years ago. Aditi has chosen to use contemporary references as inspiration for the stereotypes Pompey claims to spot in the audience. Aditi and I believe that Shakespeare used topical events and issues in his plays – even when they were set in earlier historical eras. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with anachronisms, it’s just that we don’t recognise them any more, so Aditi had some fun with this speech. 

In Pompey’s original speech he points out into the audience and says: “First, here’s Master Rash, he’s in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds, of which he made five marks ready money. Marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead.” 

In Aditi’s translation this becomes: “There I see Master Subprime, made his bonuses selling houses made of paper, then he huffed and puffed and blew them down! The pigs, they caught him, and threw him down a well, and there he waits for his bail-out, promises as soon as you pull him out he’ll repay you in kind, open you a fake bank account or 12."

Aditi Kapil, playwright who has translated MEASURE FOR MEASUREThe translation goes on to talk about Master Shale Oil, “who sticks his pipeline where he pleases, be the lady willing or not” along with "Master Weiner the texter, young Master PornHub, Master Troll the Internet bully, and Master All-Lives-Matter tilting at windmills while his house burns”. These characters replace Master Caper, Master Three-pile the mercer, Master Copper-spur, Master Starve-lackey and “young Drop-heir that killed the lusty pudding” and others that modern artists, audiences and students would need to read a host of footnotes to begin to understand.

ELAINE: What was your earliest Shakespeare experience?

LUE: I am from Ohio and there was a Shakespeare festival every year in Northern Ohio. As a kid my grandparents had season tickets in the summer. I was seven or right when I first saw stuff. I swear the first play I saw was Taming of the Shrew. That’s the story I tell ... but maybe it was All’s Well or Hamlet or something. The company would perform different plays in the season. I remember one set and two different plays. Did I know what was going on? Probably not, but it was great fun. When I was a bit older, I remember seeing a Hamlet at Cleveland Playhouse, a regional theatre and liking that a lot. I can’t say Shakespeare was something that grabbed me particularly. Everyone was doing Shakespeare. I didn’t quite get it. Isn’t there enough being written about this guy, like 400 books a year or something? Was there anything left to say, I wondered. 

Cleveland Playhouse, where Lue saw her first HAMLETELAINE: Can you single out a favourite Shakespeare play, or two? 

LUE: I’d have to say The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure. The skill of magic, alchemy or whatever it is that gets us from the beginning of The Winter’s Tale to the point where we believe that could happen; a statue coming to life, whatever that is. Where’s she been for 17 years? Did she really die? I love experiencing that Peter Pan ‘do I believe?’ moment again. I think that’s extraordinary, to get an audience to be willing to go on that ride. I am always taken by the skill of that. I really love being taken on that trip. 

Measure For Measure, on the other hand, I think is a realistic play and it presents a society that is constantly in motion and is at the mercy of power gone wrong – which I think is just about every society in the history of the world. It reminds us that power has always to be checked. Maybe where I agree with Shakespeare is that he is wary of this power and how easily we can be fooled and the consequences of being fooled and how we don’t think before we say or do something.

First Folio of Shakespeare's plays - the categories used by Hemings and Condell to organise the playsThat’s how these plays kind of work and we just saw that demonstrated in several scenes today in the Derby workshop... it just kind of happens. There is this moment where someone says or does something without taking the time to think about it first. It’s very potent to me. I’m not formally religious but I appreciate the wide and deep range of that play’s standpoints from the religious standpoint and from the point of view of morality, sexuality and social relations. I feel like it covers a lot of political layers that we must navigate in our own world.

ELAINE: Do you think it’s helpful that Shakespeare’s plays are categorised as comedies, tragedies and histories?

LUE: Absolutely not! It’s the worst thing that Hemings and Condell* did. I appreciate what they did in publishing the plays, but that categorisation has been something we have to fight against. If people knew how funny the histories are, they would be their favourites. I really believe that. Overall, I love the histories the best because they have everything in them… personal and political and if I just knew who was who and what they stand for and when they changed their mind.. Oh my god it would be like…. It’s drama like Game of Thrones. You can’t have tragedy without comedy, or comedy without tragedy, you just can’t. Its proportional. We need to teach people it’s proportional. There’s more comedy than tragedy in the comedies, but that doesn’t mean ‘pure comedy’. There is no such thing as pure comedy or tragedy.

*John Hemings and Henry Condell were actors who put together the First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623 – the reason for our name.

ELAINE: Is there any Shakespeare that you have seen that has made a particularly big impression on you?

Diane Venora as Hamlet at Public Theater, New York, in 1989 LUE: I saw Diane Venora play Hamlet at the Public Theater, New York, and that was first time I thought that I could be in a Shakespeare play. That made a really big impression on me. This was another challenge to me, that Shakespeare’s plays were always so very heavily male. His acting companies were of course all male 400 years ago. There’s still a little bit of that written into these plays and we’re trying to unpack that, but it has to be acknowledged. I don’t usually go to films, in general, but I did love the Helen Mirren Tempest [the 2010 film where the main character Prospero is changed from male to female]. 

ELAINE: There was some criticism of Play On! Shakespeare. What was that like for you?

LUE: The way we describe the project is to say ‘translation’ and people go immediately to the first definition which is ‘word for word’, which I get and appreciate, but that is not literally what we’ve done. I have asked the writers to take it on as an ‘act of translation’ so they were to examine it and change what needed to be changed. 

Lue introduces Play On! Shakespeare playwrights to friends of Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016Initially there was a lot of negative reaction, without having experienced one of the translations, or even allowing me to explain. And really it’s not easy to explain until you experience it and then you go, ‘Oh, that’s what she’s been trying to say!’ I needed a translator for that. 

I didn’t think I would be the person doing this to Shakespeare. I am of a generation that was taught that this language is sacrosanct and you have to lean in and work harder and you’re lazy and you’re stupid if you don’t get it. Then people say don’t worry if you don’t understand it because 20 minutes later you are going to know what’s happening. 

‘What are you doing to my Shakespeare?’ was the reaction. There was a lot of criticism initially on social media – just from the announcement of what we were doing. So I got off social media because I can’t do my work and worry about what people are saying. 

Play On! Shakespeare playwrights who translated the complete works over 3 yearsWe had had a pilot period before this when we had done three or four translations and two or three of them had been produced. When we announced that we were doing all 39 – that was when we got the attention. Scale gets attention. Two or three plays? Nobody cared, but 39 plays gets attention. We had to go under the radar. It was a research and development project, an experiment. It still is. Let’s see what happens. So we went under the radar and now we are going a little more public.

Obviously we had the festival this summer where all the plays were read. So there is now a little more criticism coming back again. It’s very human to criticise…..I’ve got my beliefs too, so I totally get it. One of the big challenges is that very few people have experienced them. How can we demonstrate these works in an environment that gives them a fighting chance of being experienced for what they are? Then, by all means criticise them, but do it after you’ve experienced them. At least give me that.

Elaine Pritchcard, who interviewed Lue after the workshop on MEASURE FOR MEASUREELAINE: What would you most love to see come out of Play On! Shakespeare?

LUE: I would love to see them be part of the curriculum in schools. We have a couple of high school arts classed who translated Twelfth Night and As You Like It as class assignments. They broke the code and now they know how to go back into Shakespeare. 

I can see them being very useful for people for whom English is a second language. There are a lot of people like me who cannot tune into the original language, no matter how hard we try, or how many times we read the play, and read all the notes and the essays and everything. I’m hoping that this can bring new audiences in to Shakespeare.

I have had spouses say to me ‘Now I can go and enjoy something that my partner really loves. Usually I try, if I go to a Shakespeare play and maybe make it to half time and then I have to go to the bar’. I talked about this project in a group and a woman started to cry and I thought it was because I was doing something to her Shakespeare, but she said ‘I’m crying because now my husband can come with me’. That’s a kind of access and isn’t that beautiful? 

Click on the logo to visit the Play On! Shakespeare websiteI don’t think we’re destroying stories. We are making them clearer and I get the ‘loss’ bit, but you can go back afterwards to the original text with a deeper understanding. 

These translations can be produced as plays, about 10 of them have been already, but they can also become part of the process, to help when you do a Shakespeare play as a creative annotation - a resource in the room. 

I want them to inspire people to do their own translations. They will learn so much. If I taught playwriting, I would make everyone do this translation exercise because they would learn a ton about how to write plays.

 

Play On! Shakespeare commissioned more than 30 playwrights in 2016-18 to translate all of Shakespeare's plays into modern English.

More than 50% of the playwrights are women, more than half are people of colour.

The company staged rehearsed readings of all the plays with full casts at Classic Stage Company in New York this summer, when the casting reflected the same demographic as the playwrights.

In November 2019, director Lue Morgan Douthit ran the first public Play On! Shakespeare workshop in the UK, hosted by 1623 theatre company at QUAD arts centre in Derby.

 

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