June 15, 2019
Day 21:”I haven’t overthought it yet,” actor Marsha Stephanie Blake, Olivia in 12N – this is the key to comedy: just do, don’t think.
I’ve been trying to walk every morning, mostly because I sit all day listening to plays. Sitting is the new smoking as you know. The human body was designed to move. It certainly wasn’t designed to sit. I also need the space in my head that a walk seems to generate for me. I’ve set this route down 2nd avenue, sometimes I pop through a few parks and wend my way to 14th through Stuy Town. I want to get to the river. It’s not a particularly scenic route because there is just so much construction going on, and the walk along the river has its obstructions as well. But I think being outside is generally better than pounding a false pavement in the exercise room in the basement of the apartment building.
I have always picked up trash on my walks. I keep thinking that I need to get one of those grabber things and a fisherman’s bag, because there are some unsavory things that get tossed. Long ago there were Marlboro cigarette packs and Budweiser beer bottles. Now there are Starbucks cups and snack food wrappers.
But I decided that NY was going to have to deal with its street trash without my help for I wouldn’t get very far without having to pick up trash. I don’t quite understand why people just casually discard empty cups or wrappers. There are trash bins on every block as far as I can see. But I just put my head down and ignore the bits of trash as best I can.
I have this old-fashioned radio head set that I wear. I like radio. It is still one of the great inventions of humankind. It is efficient, it is easy to access, it is immediate. And it’s inexpensive to use. That said, my apartment doesn’t have a radio in it. It has an old-fashioned CD player – whoa!
I like classical music, and I knew that NY would have a great classical music station. And so it does. (Pandora’s classical music category is pretty grim, but I have discovered something called Idagio. Check it out.) I like classical music because it somehow opens cognitive waves for me. And I could use all the help in that department. There are people who can hear lyrics, there are people who can hear music, and there are fewer of us that can hear both. I am easily distracted by lyrics, which I can’t really discern anyway, so I’ve grown fond of listening to classical music while I work and walk.
On Saturdays, the classical music station here has a program called Piano puzzler in which Bruce Adolphe has transposed a well known song into the style of another composer. And the caller is asked to identify the song and the composer. I think it’s an NPR program but I’ve never heard it before. And I find it fascinating, especially in light of our translation project. Some people have described these Shakespeare translations like cover songs by different bands. And I rather like that distinction.
Translator Kenneth Cavander has never been comfortable with the word “translation”, which I get, it is a n odd concept we are promoting. We’ve tried “transcription”, “transposition,” “transliteration”. And none of them are more accurate than what I am asking the playwrights to do. It is an act of translation that I am interested in, and not the “word for word” definition that we tend to think of first.
But this game is rather fascinating. This week, Bruce used a Beatles tune and transposed it into the style of Debussy. Like any good cover, it made me listen to the Beatles tune in a fresh new way.
I was prescriptive about two aspects of the commissioned writers: I wanted a cohort of 51% women, and 51% writers of color. I wanted to open up the world of Shakespeare to those of us who haven’t been invited in before. That was the main reason for that. And even with the best of intentions, I often had to check myself as I defaulted to reaching out to my small cohort of colleagues. It couldn’t just be a group of FOL, friends of Lue’s. I wanted to learn and be pushed too.
But there is also some whimsicality in these choices too. There are translators, and there are playwrights at different stages of their careers, and there are translators who are also playwrights. There are writers who have a great affinity and knowledge of Shakespeare, and those who do not. There are writers for whom English was not a first language; and there are writers who represent different English traditions. In addition, there are two commissions with actor/directors and one commission with director/playwright. I thought that adding a few artists with such practical knowledge about stagecraft would add a lot to our knowledge about how these plays work. This all sounds much more organized and prescriptive than it really was. In the end, the commissions were given to the first 36 writers who said yes to me in August 2015.
David Ivers is one of the actor/directors. (Sean San Jose, who translated CORIOLANUS, is the other.) I worked with him on a production of SHREW At OSF years ago, which I thought it was hilarious and full of heart. And I wanted him to share his vast experience as an actor in and a director of many of these comedies. There is a long tradition of actors passing bits down through the generations. I predicted that the comedies would be the hardest to translate (and that has proven true, I might add) and so I thought his crazy comedic mind might be able to unlock things that we just can’t figure out.
And if anyone can make that “Lie Direct” beat at the end of the play work, it will be David Ivers. I still threatened to cut it during the rehearsal period, but I thought, “oh, let’s just see how it lands.” And damn if actors Mark Bedard and Ceci Fernandez didn’t make that work. Hm. I have to rethink it now.
Before that matinee reading, however, it is the usual mad dash through three other rooms in the morning. We’ve had many discussions in the comedy rooms about the use of swear words. Did Shakespeare use them or not? Where they illegal to say on stage? Scholar Lezlie Cross says they were illegal; scholar Ayanna Thompson says that they weren’t. And what the hell does “fie” mean anyway? Was it a known expletive to Shakespeare’s audiences? And if so, what is the equivalent because it doesn’t have any weight today, except in that “ye olde Shakespeare i-can-ignore” way.
Listen, the dirtiest word in the English to me is a reference to a female’s genitals. And please don’t tell me that you don’t know that Shakespeare managed to put it into 12N? “Her c’s, u’s and t’s.” The aural joke is that “and” sounds like an ‘en’, right? Alison Carey, the translator of 12N, wants to make it even more obvious. Perhaps “pussy” is less offensive? But when it’s spelled out, there is an immediate recognition.
We’re at the end of the third week and we’re about to end the period of the major histories and comedies. Shakespeare was writing for a company and it makes sense to me that there are more comedies and younger characters in the histories and that as they age, the characters also age. As do their interests. Life gets more complicated for the characters onstage in the last 2/5ths of his plays.
For me, Shakespeare is at his best when things change on a word. Viola’s speech when she realized that Olivia has fallen in love with her, for instance. Such juxtapositions are funny because they are so jarring, but I do think that they are lifelike. Things do change on a word. We may not always know it in life except by retrospect. And we may not be aware of it in the course of a play. But we who are in the plays have to know where the hinge points as.
We’re still on the hunt for a goblet in Hamlet.
Whimsical and haphazard will be on my tombstone, I suspect, as that was the pattern for inviting scholars and theater colleagues to come hear one of these. I had hoped that a scholar would have been able to stay for the entire festival. In truth, because they would be much more disciplined than I about writing about this. I mean, when we look back on this, are we going to be relying heavily on these blogs?
Anyway, I’ve invited Brett Gamboa to come. You know by know how much I loved his book SHAKESPEARE’S DOUBLE PLAYS and how it influenced out doubling schemes. We are also finding huge challenges in using his calculations, and I want him to hear a few of these so we can talk about the challenges that I found in assigning the roles according to a model 400 years ago. So he’s hear this weekend for the year of 1599. I look forward to hearing his thoughts about what he hears.
This afternoon is the reading of AS YOU. And may I confess to you that I have never found it to be a particularly funny play. Like 12N, which we will discover is also dark, these plays are not served by marketing departments calling them comedies. There are serious personal investigations about who was is, and how one presents oneself in the world. Perhaps this is something that Shakespeare himself is questioning at this stage of his life. Hamlet begins with “Who’s there?” and the play in many ways examines just who is Hamlet. Similarly, I find the two plays that straddle Hamlet – AS YOU and 12N – ask a similar question.
I have been talking about how these readings are forcing us to listen to the plays, and it has been especially interesting for us to hear the early comedies, without too many gestures and funny noses. And so the reading style really suits AS YOU, as we listened intently to it. David has an incredibly quick and inventive mind – that’s the mind of a comic, for sure – and he has much fun inventing words “man-o-logue” to describe a male character going on and on. The wit in this play is language based, not slapstick based. It’s the first time I get a sense for what’s to come with Restoration plays. It still takes a long time to set up the pins, as it does in Restoration, but once those pins are set, it’s fun to watch them get knocked down.
And like a lot of Shakespeare’s play, there is a distinction between the first half and the second half. And actors who are characters in the first half become different characters in the second. It’s as if once we get to the Forest of Arden, the world of the court disappears. And there is hope at the end that it will be rebuilt with the new generation. So that all felt warm and lovely.
But wait there’s more: we’re going to tear it all down again tonight at JC. And who knows how it’s going to be rebuilt. That’s tragedy for ya! My goodness, those actors went pell mell all over that space! It was incredibly effective as a way to literally show a society run amuck.
Again, the contrasts between high and low, comedy and tragedy, poetry and prose is so much clearer in Shishir’s translation. And here’s the secret fact: this one may be the one that has been touched the least. Maybe it’s because we know the play so well as it is often a choice in high school. I think every Shakespeare play deals with power dynamics. And asks the same questions: what two forces are in conflict; who wins; to what effect. This can be applied across the boards, for power exists in any social relation, whether it is domestic or public. This one may be the one that examines the backroom machinations of political process. I do joke about its lack of sex, but it also may be the play with the least amount of humor it in. I’m not sure i ever clocked that before. But if you can make the stakes clear at the beginning, it is a fast fall downhill watching a mob gather steam. There is a great moral to this story that is perpetually relevant.
Tomorrow: What exactly is rotten in the state of Denmark?