Day #13: June 7, 2019
“When people say they know what they like, they really mean they like what they know.” Jerry Turner, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, 1979-1999.
Today is a blur. I’m beginning to feel like one of those people who try not to get run over during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. One false move and I’m going to get gored! I knew this schedule was relentless. I keep telling myself that it is only short-lived. However, to make it through this I must have a strict regimen and not waver. And we all know that I’m not very good at that.
I’m also a little bit sad. I knew it would be hard to find the audience for this kind of endeavor. Play on Shakespeare has no toehold in NY, I mean, who the hell are we, right? One of the many reasons why I was so happy when John Doyle offered us CSC as our home is because we could attach ourselves to them as a known and honorable institution in NY. And for that leg up, I am eternally grateful to him and the entire CSC staff.
And staged readings? In June?
I’m not exactly sure how the audience that comes has found us. I don’t spend any time with that in my brief introductions. Mostly, because I hate doing introductions and all I want is to let the artwork speak for itself. But the audience has been amazing! They are actively listening, and leaning in. Which is exactly what I am hoping for. I sit up in the back so I can watch them. Their body language gives the best dramaturgical information about how the telling of the story is landing with them. And these audiences are engaged. And that’s great.
When I originally proposed commissioning all 39 plays to Dave, one of my interests was to see if one genre (history, tragedy, comedy) could use this kind of blending/weaving/linguistic adjustment kind of thing. My hunch going into this project eight years ago was that the comedies would be the hardest, there would be story adjustments needed in the histories (like a Russian novel, just clarifying who is who and who are they related to and what’s their beef); and that large chunks of the tragedies would be left alone (those famous speeches).
And that has mostly been the case, especially with the comedies. It’s not easy to exchange one word in a line to make the joke work. The jokes are built on many levels, not the least of which is aural, and so it’s often more successful to pull out the entire bit and rebuild it using a different metaphor.
The biggest discovery for audiences so far seems to be that comedy isn’t isolated in those plays known as the comedies. There is humor in the tragedies and histories too. I don’t know where we got the idea that dramatic genres were pure: all comedy all the time. The audience got a big shock tonight while hearing R&J. Because it begins as a comedy. That’s the only way to get to the depth of a tragedy. Start with the opposite or contrast.
While we knew that the audience would be small for that first week of early plays, I am disappointed that the popular plays are popular. I had hoped that more people would be willing to hear lesser known plays. Edward III and Richard II yesterday were dynamic events. I worked at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under three artistic directors, and we always had a challenge programming the lesser known Shakespeare plays. OSF prides itself on producing the Shakespeare canon, which are the 36 plays in the 1623 Folio plus PERICLES. And I believe OSF has produced the canon four times. And about to complete its fifth.
And still and yet, you have to buffer KING JOHN with a popular Shakespeare play. And so Shakespeare theaters have created their own dead end because they keep producing the same 10 plays over and over again. And audiences are getting tired of them. I’ve had long-standing OSF patrons say to me, “Lue, I’ve seen TWELFTH NIGHT 12 times, I can’t see it again.” And I say, “Fair enough, you get a free pass.”
But what are theaters supposed to do? I don’t know which came first: the reluctance on the part of theaters to program KING JOHN or the reluctance of the audience to attend. Artistic directors tell me that they can’t get the audience for KJ. And audiences tell me they are bored with another production of Midsummer.
And so it is that our first big house is for our first big blockbuster, Romeo and Juliet.
I haven’t been paying much attention to the ticket sales, by the way. All proceeds for the tickets go to CSC, which relieved me of the burden of shaking the bushes to get people to come inside to hear some plays. And CSC has been so generous with eblasts and whatnot to their member base as well as helping us reach a wider audience. So it’s not about the money per se for me. It’s about the joy of sharing this work with more people. And I think actors like to have that connection too.
I did my usual rounds before heading to CSC for the evening reading. This time, I began at CSC where Jeffrey Whitty was running the cast of Midsummer through its paces. I found myself mesmerized by the fact that I was listening to the play, and not waiting for the next theatrical trick to keep me interested. Comedy is very hard to rehearse. In tragedies, characters can flop about but flopping in a comedy must be replicated precisely for it to work each time.
We welcomed Much Ado into the house this morning. Ranjit Bolt, the translator, was one of the first people I turned to when I got this assignment to commission some translations. There was a pilot program of three translations before we decided to take on 36 more to equal 39. The deal Dave Hitz struck with OSF artistic director Bill Rauch is that he would pay for five commissions: some would be these translations that he was interested in, and some would be adaptations, which Bill was more interested in. (At the time of the deal, OSF was producing Alison Carey’s adaptation called THE VERY MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, IOWA. And we do have two adaptations as part of Play on: a fanatically funny two person adaptation of TWO GENTS by the Q Brothers; and an ASL TITUS ANDRONICUS. The former has been produced several times to great acclaim. And we’re still hoping that a theater will pick up the TITUS.)
I was given the task to dole out the commissions. And that’s when I came up with the “paint chip” test: I commissioned Kenneth to take on TIMON, a tragedy; I commissioned Doug to take on HENRY 6.1, a history; and I commissioned Ranjit to take on MUCH ADO, a comedy.
My association with Ranjit goes back many years. OSF produced his TARTUFFE and I was assigned to the production as dramaturg. It was my job to contact him to ask if we could exchange some of his Britishisms for Americanisms, and I found him to be a delightful collaborator. Maybe because he always agreed to my suggestions! But his language work in his Moliere and Goldoni translations is superb. And I wanted him to apply that brain to a Shakespeare comedy.
I commissioned these three for this pilot program because they translate plays from other languages into English: Kenneth and the Greeks; Doug and contemporary Germans; Ranjit classic comedies. I wanted to learn how they would go about such a project so there weren’t any rules at the time. Not even the “do the whole play” rule. Ranjit, who is used to cutting the comedies, would write in the margins “This would be cut in performance as it is incomprehensible so I’m not going to translate it.” His pragmatic instinct was always correct, but I wanted them to translate the whole play. So he had to go back and figure a few moments out.
I stopped by KJ and, yes, they were on another break. Everyone seems jolly when they come to the snack station in the hospitality suite, but still….how are things going in there?
I did manage one of my lucky (aka timely) drop-ins at MERCHANT. I slipped in just as the trial scene was beginning. Talk about your dramatic moment! Director Estefania Fadul was creating the stage picture with the pro-Antonio camp stage right (audience left), a center music stand for the Duke and Belario (aka Portia disguised) and Shylock, isolated on stage left (audience right). Just the semiotics of body placement told the story of what’s going on at that moment in the play.
I left right after Shylock exits the scene, and I whispered to Avital Shira, the dramaturg, that I think he should leave the stage space. He’s being kicked out of this society, and we won’t see him again, so I think the actor should leave the stage and not go back upstage to sit in a chair where he could be seen. She agreed. So we’ll see how that comes out.
Off to Romeo and Juliet. And I have to admit to being anxious about it. The opening scene is wickedly funny, which throws audiences off. They aren’t expecting it. They have been grinning and bearing it through the collier jokes for centuries, and suddenly, the playfulness between Samson and Gregory makes sense. It’s also terribly sexual. I keep waiting for audiences to accuse us of tarting up these plays. (As far as I can tell, there are at least four sexual innuendo jokes PER PAGE in Love’s Labour’s Lost.)
I have forgotten that there will be a special group in the house tonight: Adapt Community Network had brought their theater group to hear the play because they are going to be performing R&J in August. What a great idea to use this reading as prep work! ACN is the new title for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of New York, and the group who came tonight participate in a theater program. And they were ready to learn and enjoy. They were a great audience!
We begin the comedy of Romeo and Juliet. And we are laughing with some characters and certainly laughing at Romeo, who is being so melodramatic about being in love with Rosaline. Remember that plays hinge on change, and so if he is falsely in love at the beginning, he will be truly in love by the end.
There was a lot of talk in the development of this translation about particular word choices. “Wherefore” sounds like “where” to our modern ear, and not “why” which is what it means. ‘Wherefore’ has two syllables, and ‘why’ does not, so if you mess with that word, you have to reconstruct the line because I want the translations to match the rhythm of the play.
Additionally the challenge for Hansol is that this particular play is so well-known. I mean, is there any part of it that doesn’t show up in Bartlett’s quotations? She told me early on that she highlighted all the famous passages and she didn’t think she would touch them. My reply was, “What are you going to do with the five remaining sentences. You’re going to have to touch a famous speech.” (We did agree, however, not to touch the famous 14 line “sonnet” between R&J during the Capulet ball.)
But she did decide to keep “wherefore” in that instance. It’s just too iconic, she says to me.
We also had a long conversation about the use of thees and thous. I don’t like them, but I did not make changing them a requirement. She wanted the formality of it, and a resonance to the chivalric codes of the past. And this is a play that moves us from a world that has been in a downward spiral promoting hate rather than doing the real work of love to a world at the end in which they have to accept each other in order to survive. During the course of the play, Hansol will strategically introduce the word ‘you’ and it is so striking when it is finally used, that it has physical impact on us. (It is used by Friar Laurence when he is lambasting Romeo for thinking that banishment is the same as death.)
There is also another potent word choice moment and it is dramaturgically quite satisfying, even if it hurts to hear. And this is just before the play turns. “Until Mercutio dies, everything is still possible,” Hansol told the cast. And that is dramaturgically true: the actor playing Mercutio has to move the play from comedy to tragedy in a single line: “A plague on both your houses.” Which the character says three times. And by third, it is clearly the character’s death warrant.
As a set up to that, however, Hansol chose to have Tybalt start the turn towards the consequences of tragedy by uttering the F-word at Romeo. It’s not the F-word that might have come to mind immediately; in this case, Tybalt calls Romeo a faggot. And suddenly, the audience went cold, and we knew things had just irrevocably changed. It was palpable and powerful.
In the talkback afterwards, so many people expressed their surprise at the range of emotions in the play, especially the comedy. So many of them knew the play extremely well, and were pleasantly surprised by how imperceptible the changes were.
The actors from the Adapt group jumped in and talked about how clear it was and how it would help them. And then they shared with us who they were going to play. The woman playing the nurse said that she learned a lot and she is determined to be even funnier. Huzzah to that!
Tomorrow: we tag MIDSUMMER onto this, and introduce the comedy known as KING JOHN