Vandalizing Shakespeare

What's in a nameThe Oregon Shakespeare Festival is currently producing a massive project. They are commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to, as they put it, “translate” 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. Their website reads :

“By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions. We are also excited about the potential for a highly engaging national conversation about language that this project could prompt.”

They have been getting a lot of press on this project, which I’m sure is a major part of the agenda. Well, in answer to their call, I would like to join their conversation. Here is my take…

OSF recently posted an example of this work that they are doing on their “Play On” Facebook page. The following excerpt illustrates perfectly how terrible the foundations of their project really are.

Please read this excerpt from their own post..

From Translating Timon: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespeare Translation/Adaptation Project By Scott Kaiser:

Although the Cavander version is written as dramatic verse, it is not penned in iambic pentameter. Working line by line, Cavander strives to honor the meaning of each line rather than strictly adhering to Shakespeare’s original meter.

For example, here are five lines, written in verse, where Timon finds that the servants have locked his doors to keep out his creditors:

TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?
[Arden 3.4.77]

And here are the same five lines from the Cavander translation, written in free verse:

TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I heave feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?

Shakespeare uses the common and easily understood English word FREE in this instance not for the purpose of just ONE interpretation, but for MANY. Even the sounds of the word itself evoke an experience. Be Free

Free – unencumbered
Free – liberal
Free – liberated
Free – complimentary
Free – for nothing
Free – gratuitous
Free – with love
Free – generous
Free – unshackled
Free – open
Free – limitless
It goes on and on. Every person reading, or listening, could add three or four more interpretations of what “free” means to them in the context of the moment.

You see, there are so many personal experiences in the word FREE that an audience is afforded an opportunity to participate, to build it for themselves when listening to the word in context of the story. That’s the genius of great writing. Shakespeare trusts the imagination of the listener. These “translators” strip the opportunity for such a wide breadth of experience and eliminate an economically beautiful word like “free,” which aspirates with the construction of a lip and the teeth into an elongated, potentially endless, “eeeee,” like the squeeeeeze of a lemon. They strip the listener of an opportunity to experience any of this and replace it with mundane and pedestrian interpretations like Cavander’s of Timon being “open with his friends.” This forces a narrow, limited interpretation on the audience, under the guise that this is Shakespeare’s own intent. It’s not translation they are engaging in, it’s vandalism.

On another note, the word: TRANSLATION
OSF and their writers continue to call this work a “translation.” Shakespeare is already in ENGLISH. It doesn’t need a “translation.” That word alone, being thrown around willy-nilly over this project, is evidence enough that no one supporting this endeavor knows what they are really talking about. Words have meaning and if this project is an exploration of the meaning of words, why not start there? These are not “translations,” they are at best adaptations and at worst interpretations. Unfortunately, if this is a shining example of the work they are doing, the latter is probably more likely.

Funk It Up About Nothin' By The Q Brothers, adapted from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Funk It Up About Nothin’
By The Q Brothers, adapted from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

If people want a better practical understanding of the more archaic passages, there are already plenty of books out there that offer up what OSF is doing. Instead of wasting all this talent and resource on this nonsense, why not commission these talented playwrights to write entirely new interpretations or adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (like West Side Story is of R&J or Lion King is of Hamlet, or any of the exciting work done by the Q Brothers)? Adaptation is what Shakespeare did himself, so it would be entirely in the spirit of his work and at least we’d have some new plays. Perhaps they could even expand them to involve more women and different ethnicities.

By doing something that is the equivalent of the well-intentioned elderly woman updating the 19th century Spanish fresco, “Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, and representing these works as “translations,” reveals that OSF doesn’t even fully understand the language of our own time. How can we expect them to reliably interpret Shakespeare’s language better than the bard himself? Coming from an organization of this level of prestige, this is a disappointing and shameful representation of the state of classical theatre art in America.

Shame on OSF.

“Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, with

“Ecce Homo” by painter Elias Garcia Martinez, with “help” by Cecilia Gimenez.

Special thanks to Marnie Bullock Dresser for reminding me of the Spanish fresco debacle. 

Advice to a Player

A young actress, a High School senior,  attended APT’s Hamlet and afterwards sent me a message with a great question. She recently had to perform a very famous Shakespeare speech and while terribly excited she realized that people would likely be familiar with the speech, and thought that most people would be reciting it in their heads, or going “oh, oh, that’s where that’s from” instead of listening to her delivery. She wanted to know if I came across a similar experience with the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and asked me to talk about what I do when approaching such well know characters. Do I ever make a point to deliver the lines in a new way, or do I just stick to what has been done as long as it’s true to the character? The following is my response to her and I thought I might as well share it here too!

Here’s what I have to say about speaking those famous lines…

1. Shakespeare may very well have been aware of his genius, but I doubt that when he got to the parts in the plays where Hamlet says “To be or not To be” or Antony says “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” that he thought to himself, “the stuff so far has been good, but today, TODAY I will sit down and write something FAMOUS!” I think instead, he was just writing the story. One piece at a time. “To be or not to be” is no more or less important than “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” That’s a line which you probably don’t remember, nor could understand very well because it is a complex botanical metaphor for human inconstancy. But still, it’s a powerful and dark sentiment. All this is to say, I treat the famous parts like any other part.  They must be necessary, immediate, supported in personal history, and honestly said with intention and relationship.

2. As for living up to other famous versions, I’ll let you in on a little secret. No one remembers those “famous” versions well enough to compare what they think they remember of them to what they are seeing you do right now in front of them. If they do (which they don’t), but if they do… who cares? That person is one in a thousand and even then, they will either like what you’ve done or not; which is what they would have done anyway without another version in their heads to compare. See what I mean? The only path to anything remotely successful is to play the action and the scene for truth, not to attempt to garner respect from the viewer. That will happen or not regardless of anything you do, so you might as well let it be and focus on the action at hand.

3. I personally find that seeing as well as mimicking other versions are great ways to to practice your craft as a young actor. I remember doing Much Ado About Nothing in high school and a few of my fellow teenaged cast mates adamantly did NOT want to watch the Branagh film, because they didn’t want it to somehow “ruin their work”. Fine for them, but I thought, “I am 16 years old, where would I get off thinking that Kenneth Branagh had nothing to teach me!?”  In most visual art schools young painters try to replicate the works of great artists again and again. Ever go to a museum and see a student artist painting a picture of a painting? They are practicing and learning technique and style through the work of a greater artist than themselves in the hope to one day be better painters. Painting a Painting of a PaintingI say, especially when you are young, see what you can see. Mimic if you can. If something doesn’t work for you or doesn’t feel right for how you see the scene, drop it and try something else. Worst case scenario is that you learned something! Also, regardless of how you “steal” from another performance, it will inherently be different, because you are a different person doing it.

4. This may seem contrary to #3, because in some ways it is. Don’t ever assume that just because someone great did this or that moment brilliantly means that that moment should now be enshrined in that fashion for eternity. Theatre is the art of NOW. Trying to do something for the sake of being new and different will not get you very far, nor will trying to speak the speech exactly as Maggie Smith did it when she played a part. However, trying to be alive in the moment, with the intention of recreating with words the person to whom you are talking, THAT is a journey you can go on your entire artistic career with increasing success and satisfaction.

Steal what you can. Get inspired by the work you see that fails, as well as the work that succeeds . Make bold, brave choices and be not afraid of failure… Actually, forget that last part. That’s a stupid thing to say. WE ALL FEAR. Don’t try to get rid of your fear. Rather, try to learn to be okay with feeling afraid; to thrill at it. As Hamlet says…

“The readiness is all… let be.”

Live on Wisconsin Public Television!

Tonight, Monday Aug. 12th at 7pm, I will be live in studio on WPT during the airing of Shakespeare Uncovered: Hamlet w/David Tennant! Don’t miss it.


“Actor David Tennant discusses the meaning of the play Hamlet and the iconic role with Jude Law and other Hamlets. Plus, American Players Theatre‘s very own Hamlet, Matt Schwader, joins us in the studio.”

Photo by Carissa Dixon, courtesy of American Players Theatre – 2013

Corporeal Mime

Last night I received some terrific actor inspiration! I went with some friends to see a production of corporeal mime (which, for those of you unfamiliar with the art form, is something like a combination of story based theatre and modern dance).  It was entitled Waiting for Ulysses and presented as part of the Theatre de l’Ange Fou‘s White Church Theatre Project. It was compelling, beautiful, funny, and unnerving. The performers are from all over the globe and they perform and study the techniques of Corporeal Mime created by Etienne Decroux (who taught Marcel Marceau as well as my teacher, Jewel Walker). Their home base is in London, UK.  This is the second summer season the company has performed in its space in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside. If you are in the Spring Green area anytime now through Aug. 12, I STRONGLY recommend stopping by and catching a performance! (I have their schedule posted at the end of this entry.) They have rehabbed a beautiful old white church in a valley not far from American Players Theatre and Taliesin into a performance space.

As a performing artist myself, walking away from the production I can’t help but dwell on a couple of  aspects…

Theatre de l’Ange Fou's Whit Church Project production of Waiting for Ulysses

Theatre de l’Ange Fou’s Whit Church Project production of Waiting for Ulysses

First, the use of gesture and it’s powerful yet economic ability to convey a whole history. One of the performers in the role of “Penelope” (Ulysses’ hopeful, pining wife) brushes at her long hair, evidently her thoughts are elsewhere and likely on her long lost husband. This type of gesture is something I am making of use of in Hamlet. There is a moment after the my father’s ghost leaves me with the charge of “remember me” where director John Langs suggested I literally “from the table of my memory… wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there.” It is a gesture I return to a few other times in the show, particularly when Hamlet finds himself off track and needing to return to the focus of revenge. I do it on “about my brains, hum…” There is a moment when I drift into lovingly, reaching out in friendship to Horatio but need to get on point with “something too much of this.” I return to the gesture again in the play within the play when I need to get the distracting heartache of Ophelia out of my way.  Some might consider this a little obvious or cliche, but I find it to be a touchstone of character and story. Not only is it a touchstone for the audience but for me as Hamlet as well. It is a grounding experience, a return to objective and intention. I loved seeing this play out in MANY different ways in Waiting for Ulysses.

The other thing I could not stop considering was the instant and dramatic arresting of attention that happens when a solo performer is confronted by the entrance of one or more other performers. This is nothing unique to mime, but with the absence of language it’s dramatic effect was more apparent to me.  A man alone. A woman enters. Already there is drama. Will they see one another? Do they know one another? Who will engage whom? Love? Hate? Fortune/Misfortune? What will happen!? Similarly, this drama occurs with the entrance of three or four or five more performers, etc.. However, when a stage is crowded, as in a big court scene or armies in battle, we have a potential to return to a level of stasis   similar to a solo performer on stage. This is not to say the level of drama is better or worse, just different. I find playing monologues very daunting for this reason. With one or more other performers in a scene there is an inherent sense of unpredictability. On the basest level, what if the other performer drops a line or a cue? BOOM drama. On the highest level the two performers work in a state of acute awareness of one another, freeing themselves up for spontaneity and surprise. Alone, delivering a monologue, there is the trap of performing for the sake of accuracy or correctness which is not particularly freeing. This is why an audience is so helpful. I never really enjoyed rehearsing Hamlets famous speeches until I had that first audience there to share in the experience. The same trap of static energy can happen in those large group scenes too. There are so many folks on stage that everyone must be responsible for his or her part, so as to not cause a chain reaction of chaos. It has not been uncommon for me to be sitting in an audience, sitting back while witnessing an apparently epic crowd scene and then find myself on the edge of my seat for a simple two person scene that follows it. The balance of thrill, spontaneity and “presence” must be especially paid attention to when working in these two situations. I find it especially challenging moving from “To be or not to be…” into the Ophelia scene. My goal is to make “To be or not to be” as readily necessary and tension filled as the extraordinary energy that arises when I am interrupted with what becomes the “nunnery scene.”  The funny thing is that I never REALLY know how well it is going until it is over and Ophelia has arrived. I rarely succeed at reaching the potential I see waiting there, but from time to time I get a taste of what is possible and that is reward enough to keep me hungry for more.

Seeing these elements so vividly on display and in such a marvelous production is enormously helpful. I can’t wait to get on stage with this renewed inspiration! Come on out and see some shows at APT and then slip into The White Church Theatre Project for Waiting for Ulysses running now through Aug. 12th!

The White Church Theatre Project is in the former Wyoming Valley Church
6348 Hwy. 23, south of Spring Green. $10 donation. 815-441-8828
Call: 815-441-8828


Ron Parker

Check out this incredibly sweet INTERVIEW with my more than generous high school drama teacher, Ron Parker. He’s not only just an amazing teacher, but an exceptional theatre artist and dear, dear friend. He taught me so much about acting and theatre and even more about being a member of a community. There is not one thing I do today in life or on stage that I can’t thank him as well as his wonderful wife, Nelda, for pointing me in the right direction. I love their family like my own.

Me and Ron

APT chats with Ron Parker, the theatre director at Appleton North. He was previously the theatre director at Tremper High School in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where core company actor, and this year’s Hamlet, Matt Schwader attended high school.  In the process of starting his Summer Shakespeare program for high school students, Mr. Parker directed Matt in his first Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Read about how Matt’s journey to APT started at age 14.”

Then check out this article on Ron’s current project Henry V
Henry V Appleton North