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Translating Shakespeare into modern English

Editor's note: This marks the debut of Jeffrey Gillespie in the Quills & Queues rotation, alternating with Vickie Aldous. Gillespie, who also writes a weekly column and theater reviews for the Tidings, succeeds Angela Decker, who has taken on other writing and instructional projects.

In the interest of having a more clarifying conversation regarding the "Play On!" project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I sat down with Lue Morgan Douthit, the intrepid longtime director of literary development and dramaturgy at OSF, as she begins to transition into her new role as director of "Play On!" The project involves commissioning 36 playwrights to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English by the end of 2018.

JG: Lue, this seems like a massive project, why are you doing it?

LMD: That’s funny. I don’t think of it as massive. What we devised is a very focused commission and development program. And then we multiplied it by 39. The scale is what is getting attention, I think. The assignment is purposely simple. But not simplistic. 

As to the "why." On any given day, I suspect I have a different answer to that, but here’s today’s answer: after all my education, and the great good fortune to be up close and personal with some of the finest Shakespearean actors and directors working today, I still have trouble understanding moments in the plays. And those moments are usually the ones in which someone states a philosophical point of view or has a realization about a situation or a person or is trying to convince someone of something in a very subtle way. I have no problem following the arias (aka soliloquies) that express great emotions like love, betrayal, or hate. I marvel at the attempt to express one’s feelings through language. Language isn’t an adequate system, when it comes to that, but it’s a system that we have agreed to use. I also have no trouble with the moments of bawdy humor or very raw, rough situations. Both which are an accurate reflection of Elizabethan/Jacobean England to me. What I can’t follow — “in the moment of hearing it in performance” (and that is the important distinction) — are those rhetorical passages which explain a philosophy, a point of view, tactics, urgency, or why someone changes their mind or heart. 

I am so jealous of those people who can hear the language. Even with my early experiences (when the brain is capable of absorbing language) it didn’t stick with me. And so this project is for those of us who want to understand better, and are frustrated. I know I’m not alone. I have heard from lots of spouses who are grateful to me. My greatest hope is that after hearing one of these in performance or by reading it, it gets people so excited that they will want to study and see the plays in their original language. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? 

JG: I should think so. Tell me about your relationship to Shakespeare. 

LMD: The fine arts were an important component of my childhood. Education was valued, as were all cultural events, especially music, art and theater. My father had the Yale Shakespeare in individual blue books on his bookshelf. And I was constantly pulling them off the shelves. They were my size. I use to recite from them. I have them, to this day, in my study. 

As for seeing Shakespeare, my grandparents had season tickets to the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, which at that time was a summer festival, located in a high school auditorium. They performed plays in rep with a unit set and in conventional costuming, which means Elizabethan. We would visit them for the weekend and would see two shows in rep. I remember seeing Taming of the Shrew and All's Well that Ends Well. They are conflated as happening on the same weekend, but I doubt that’s really true. But I do know that I have always had a soft spot for those two plays, and I have always assumed it was because of that early association. 

But by the time I got to college, Shakespeare wasn’t on my radar. Being somewhat contrary by nature, I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon with everyone else. And when it came to writing a thesis in graduate school, I couldn’t imagine that there was anything left to say about Shakespeare. 

So when I was given the opportunity to come to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that seemed really odd. Because after eight years of graduate school and three graduate degrees, I had never had a class in Shakespeare, not even in college. I’ve learned to walk through doors that open, and as long as that first step through isn’t a lulu, then you’re good. And boy, has this been good. I have had the great fortune to learn about Shakespeare from the inside from some great teachers: Libby Appel, Scott Kaiser, and especially Barry Kraft. I devised a Shakespeare dramaturgy fellowship years ago just so others could have the great joy of spending time with Barry during a rehearsal process. Everyone should have that joy. 

JG: How did you come up with the idea to do these translations? 

LMD: I didn’t. The idea came from Dave Hitz, a longtime OSF patron and supporter. Like me, he found himself during performances lost on occasion. He was particularly intrigued to learn that most often when Shakespeare is translated into a language other than English, it is translated into the contemporary form of that target language as opposed to 1600s French, or Spanish, or Korean. He realized that these audiences were having an entirely different experience of Shakespeare than we were having, and one that was most likely easier to follow. He approached Bill Rauch with the idea of supporting the commission and development of one play through this kind of “translated” lens. His dream was to see one of these translated versions in performance. He agreed to support five commissions which would range from “literal” translations — which is what we were calling this five years ago — to adaptations (like "The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa"). I was given the charge to oversee these commissions, and I decided to tackle the “literal” one first, because I didn’t think this would really work. 

So I approached Kenneth Cavander, who is a terrific translator of the Greek tragedies, and I asked him if he would take on this assignment to look at Shakespeare as if he were translating it from the source language to a target language. His initial response was to say, “This could be a career-ender for me.” I said, “For me, too. But we’re too old. It doesn’t matter.” And he replied, “You’re right.” I knew he would get into the puzzle aspect of this. This is tricky because, of course, we’re talking English as source language to English as target language, as opposed to, for example, from English to French. (The original title for this project was English-to-English.) But I wanted him to show me how a translator would go about the assignment. We decided to test different genres and different kinds of language use. So he looked at parts of "All's Well That Ends Well," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Timon of Athens." He “translated” soliloquies, two character scenes, comedy scenes, big crowd scenes, scenes in full verse and scenes in prose. And we tested these snippets in the Black Swan Lab. 

What came out of that experiment is that we commissioned him to translate "Timon of Athens." And then he contacted Geoffrey Sherman, the artistic director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, who ended up directing a production of his translation in 2014. I went to see that performance and was blown away not by how clear it was, but how much more I enjoyed the emotional roller coaster of the story because I wasn’t working so hard on the narrative details. The who, the what, the why aspect of the plays. The stakes were clear. And I found myself more engaged in the characters’ situations. 

And that’s when I thought: I want to do them all through this interesting lens. So I went to Dave and made the proposal of 39 plays, 36 playwrights, three years. 

His first response was “Wow, you think bigger than I do," and then he said "yes."

JG: Did you think you would come up against so much controversy? 

LMD: Yes. In 2010, there was an article by John McWhorter in American Theatre magazine in which he posited the idea that it is time to translate Shakespeare. As far as I know, it was one of the most controversial articles in the history of American Theatre magazine. And this was within the field of theater professionals! What seems to be have struck a nerve is that, given my job, I have admitted that I don’t understand all the words. And that I have devised a project to examine the language. Which for many people is sacrosanct and IS Shakespeare. I don’t agree. The language is the means, not the ends. It is an amazingly versatile and complex delivery system, to be sure, but there are parts of it that are impenetrable, even with all the footnotes. People seem to forget that every Shakespeare play in performance is an adaptation. We cut the gnarly bits; we change the historical time; we conflate characters or change genders. All in the service of clarity. Sometimes these cosmetic adjustments add a lot to the meaning of these plays by connecting the actions of a 400-year-old document to our time. And sometimes they don’t.

I think of this as a very geeky dramaturgical assignment. The playwrights and their dramaturgs have been tasked with creating performable companion pieces. “Performable” is an important component, because I believe the original plays were blueprints for performance. So I wanted the spirit of performance built into the language. Which is why I have commissioned playwrights, theater translators and a few directors and an actor. At the very least, these will be extremely useful in the classroom, the rehearsal room, and for audiences as a kind of creative annotation. “Companion” is also important. These aren’t meant to replace Shakespeare. I can see where they would have great use in the classroom, the rehearsal room and for audiences. Think "creative annotations." 

I also had a revelation this week that came during a performance of "Pericles" as translated by Ellen McLaughlin that I saw at the Orlando Shakespeare Festival. What I realized is that it is a new play to all of us. Including the actors. Because we don’t know how what’s coming next will be expressed. And there was a sense of replicating, ever so slightly, that feeling everyone must have had 400 years ago. These were new plays then. And these are new plays now. And that carrying forward — new play to new play — is also one of the definitions of translation that I am using. 

JG: Where is the money coming from for all of this? 

LMD: The money for the 39 commissions and their development comes from the Hitz Family Foundation. No OSF membership dollars are going towards this. The budget covers everything except for half my salary. And I mean everything. It is amazing to come from such a position of abundance. And nothing in my professional experience has felt as good as giving money to 70 artists who are being asked to ride the rails with the world’s greatest dramatist. We will all be irrevocably changed by this process. 

I am very clear about the scope of this project: we are commissioning and developing new plays; we are not producing them. And like new plays, they are owned by the playwrights. OSF does not have any rights to them, not even subsidiary rights. We do have the non-exclusive right to publish an anthology of all of them, but that is many years away. 

JG: When will the fruits of this labor be seen, and who do you see it benefiting? 

LMD: It depends on what you mean by that. There are only about eight of them in process at this point. The first drafts are due on Oct. 31, 2016, so I expect a flurry of activity then. But audiences at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Orlando Shakespeare Theatre have already benefited from this. I know of two productions slated for 2017, and we get inquiries every week from theater colleagues. 

If we mean at OSF, Bill and I are hoping to produce one of these in a few years. Before that, we are working on scheduling two public readings this fall of Kenneth Cavander’s "Timon of Athens." So keep on the lookout for those dates. Also, The Tudor Guild is planning on publishing Kenneth’s translation as well. Given that we are producing Shakespeare’s play this year, we thought it would be interesting to show how these could be great companion pieces. 

Lastly, on April 23, we are working with the Portland Shakespeare Project as they present “Shakespeare at 400,” a daylong event in honor of the 400th anniversary of the death of the bard. We are sponsoring the reading of sections from "Taming of the Shrew," "Henry the Sixth — Part One" and "Pericles," presented both in the original text and then in the Play On! translations. Playwright Ellen McLaughlin, who translated "Pericles," will give a talk about the process. For more information and for a detailed schedule for the day, you can go to www.portlandshakes.org.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.