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'Shakespeare on the Road' crew takes in Bard's U.S. following

Shakespeare expert Paul Prescott says it's a myth that if actors aren't speaking Shakespeare's lines like Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud, the result is inferior Shakespeare.

"What we've tended to hear is people speaking in their own voices and speaking it very well," Prescott told a crowd in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Carpenter Hall Wednesday.

Prescott, a reader in English at the University of Warwick, and Paul Edmondson, the head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, spoke in the midst of a four-day visit to see plays at OSF. The Ashland stop comes in the middle of a 60-day, 10,000-mile road trip in which the men and two associates from Misfit Inc., which describes itself as a "nomadic creative shop," will visit 14 Shakespeare festivals in North America.

Prescott said the goal of the project, called Shakespeare on the Road, is to take the pulse of Shakespeare in America. It's expected to result in a radio documentary, a book, a podcast, archival materials, photos and other content for the website www.shakespeareontheroad.com.

Asked if it weren't easier for English actors to speak Shakespeare's lines, Prescott got a laugh when he said, "I don't think it's easy for anybody."

Edmondson said the OSF's outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, where the Shakespeare on the Road team saw "Richard III" Tuesday night, is a magical, "epic" place.

"I was bowled over by the actors embracing the language almost like a physical object," he said, "like an invisible prop."

Prescott and Edmondson were set to see "The Comedy of Errors" Wednesday and "The Tempest" Thursday, as well as several non-Shakespeare plays.

They earlier presented OSF officials with a plaque made from wood from a cedar tree from the spot widely believed to be Shakespeare's birthplace, one of 14 they are giving out on their travels.

The trip has taken them to theaters of all kinds, from Kansas City and New Orleans to Texas and California, and now Ashland. Yet to visit are stages presenting the Bard's work in Utah, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Washington, D.C., as well at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Each theater is being asked to send to England materials from one of its Shakespeare productions each of the next three years — programs, scripts, photos, whatever.

"Ashland was always on the list," Edmondson said. "It's the oldest."

The team is giving a model of what's believed to be the Shakespeare birthplace to each theater company it visits. That's a tongue-in-cheek fulfillment of a dream of the legendary 19th-century American showman P.T. Barnum.

When the Shakespeare house came up for sale in 1847, Barnum, who is credited with saying "There's a sucker born very minute," sought to buy it with the stated goal of shipping it to the U.S. and touring it on a wagon as a roadside attraction. Horrified Brits quickly coughed up the money needed to keep the house in England.

Prescott and Edmondson said that "in the spirit of P.T. Barnum," they pose their models for photos in front of places such as the Grand Canyon.

People may find it surprising that there are many, many more Shakespeare theaters in the United States than in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., Shakespeare is busting out all over. There are so many U.S. Shakespeare festivals, ranging from spit-and-sawdust community theaters to 600-pound gorillas like OSF and Stratford, that nobody knows just how many there are, but Prescott and Edmondson say their count is 263 and rising.

In part that's due to geography. In England, most people who want to see Shakespeare can drive to The Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and The Globe within a few hours.

"Hundreds of thousands of (American) people are just saying every summer, 'I think I'll go down to the park and watch 'Richard III'," Edmondson said, suggesting that there's something extraordinary about the popularity of plays written in early modern English four centuries ago.

"Why is this going on?" Prescott asked.

That's a big question, but the Shakespeare on the Road project figures to go at least some of the way toward an answer.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.