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Play On: OSF's controversial translations a hit

A germ of an idea in 2011 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival led to a grant that funded Play On, a project with the goal of translating Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary modern English.

Just three years later, the first full production of a translated “Timon of Athens” was mounted at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and played to enthusiastic audiences.

And this spring, Play On Shakespeare, as it is now called, presented translated readings of all 39 of the Bard’s plays in 33 days at the Classic Stage Company in New York City.

Along the way, there was a bit of hand-wringing by those who feared adulteration of the language. Some worried that translation would ruin the beauty of their beloved Shakespeare’s works.

There is even a petition at MoveOn.org asking OSF to end its translation project. After more than three years, the online petition has managed to secure only about 150 signatures. The movement never gained traction.

One signer said changing Shakespeare’s lines is akin to destroying a religious fresco. Shakespeare’s words, however, continue to exist after translation.

Play On was spun off from OSF and is now an independent entity. It continues its work under the leadership of Lue Morgan Douthit, former director of literary development and dramaturgy for OSF. She has been involved since its inception.

Douthit understands the trepidation that some feel about Shakespeare translations.

“I get it. But until you hear one, you can’t appreciate it,” she said. Dumbing down the language was never a goal. Clarity was.

Translating Shakespeare is nothing new.

“There have been translations around the world in many languages. But I can tell you, never in 16th century French,” she said, smiling.

From the beginning, Douthit set high standards for the translations. The guidelines were simple:

?Do no harm: Plenty of the language doesn’t need translating.

?Go line by line: No editing, no fixing, no personal politics, no regionalisms.

?Keep the time period when the play was written.

?Keep Shakespeare’s heightened language. That was the most important one, Douthit said in a 2017 OSF Prologue article.

“It still has to have rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action and theme,” she said. “Shakespeare’s astonishingly compressed language must be respected.”

Douthit is pleased with how the New York festival turned out. Billed as a watershed event, it ran from May 29 to June 30. Many OSF alumni, both actors and directors, participated in the readings. “Working with my OSF friends had to be the most joyful part of the project,” she said.

It began with a four-year, $200,000 grant to OSF from the Hitz Foundation for five commissions, including both adaptations and translations. Dave Hitz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and festival benefactor, was interested in helping people learn to appreciate Shakespeare as much as he does.

Hitz was fascinated with the idea of hearing Shakespeare in his own language in order to experience the plays more like the Bard’s audiences did in their time. Despite the beauty and poetry of the language, audiences sometimes are tripped up by obsolete words or references.

Hitz’s brother, Ken, was a member of the OSF board of directors at the time. When Ken went off the board, Dave took his place. The brothers initially met with Douthit, Artistic Director Bill Rauch, and other staff members to discuss their idea, after which the grant was negotiated.

After the successful mounting of “Timon” by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Douthit decided to go big and ask for money to fund translations of the rest of Shakespeare’s plays. When the Hitz Foundation said yes to the tune of $3.7 million for the project, Douthit was off and running. She stepped down from her OSF duties to focus full-time on Play On.

Thirty-six playwrights were commissioned, more than half women and more than half writers of color. Each was assigned a dramaturg to assist.

The most challenging aspect of the project for Douthit was the playwrights’ schedules. Their time was tight because of the high demand for writers in film and television.

The idea of the New York festival energized everybody and the project was completed on time.

Was she happy with the results?

The translations are definitely “read-worthy,” she said. “But at this stage, I wouldn’t say they’re done. Seven have already been produced, all but one at Shakespeare theaters. Two were produced at the Prague Shakespeare Festival.”

Taylor Bailey, Play On Shakespeare producer, is a big fan of the project.

“We’ve always been proud of the fact that Play On has stimulated a lot of really lively conversation and debate about Shakespeare,” Bailey said.

Ashland residents Carole and David Florian attended seven of the 39 readings in New York City. They were part of a small focus group that was pulled together years ago before Play On was announced to the public.

Carole said she thought the festival was a remarkable accomplishment.

“When an unfamiliar word or phrase comes up, it’s hard not to have your mind step out of the play for a (moment),” she said. “Because these translations eliminate that problem, you stay connected with the language all the way through.”

OSF likely will produce one or more of the translated versions. And OSF’s Canon in a Decade project is committed to producing all of Shakespeare’s plays in the original language over 10 years.

Douthit, an Ashland resident, continues to work with Play On, hoping to develop curriculum for schools, do more readings, and shepherd more translations toward full productions.

“We have official [nonprofit] status,” she said. “And Hitz Foundation is continuing its support.”

To hear what several scenes sound like before and after translation, listen to: soundcloud.com/playonosf/sets/demos.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com

Photo by Britannie Bond Play On Shakespeare executive director Lue Douthit, center, is flanked by people who helped complete translations of Shakespeare's 39 plays into modern contemporary English, From left are translators Elise Thoron, Migdalia Cruz, Andrea Thome, Hansoi Jung, (Douthit), assistant director Taylor Bailey, translators Ellen McLaughlin and Kenneth Cavander at a Play On demo event in New York City.
Courtesy photo Lue Douthit, executive director of Play On Vourtesy pShakespeare, and Elise Thoron, a playwright who translated "Merchant of Venice," listen to a run-through at a reading of the play.