For the first half of my career at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was the “new play girl”, doing what literary managers since time immemorial (or since the 1980s, when the beginning of the new play development phase first took hold) have done: reading hundreds of scripts, filing hundreds of reports, and scouting hundreds of plays at dozens of new play festivals and university programs.
In the second half of my career, I took that “new play” lens and applied it to Shakespeare. Shakespeare, I rationalized, was a new playwright once, and his plays were once new. How did they communicate with audiences? I assume few people read them ahead of time, or had access to footnotes. Using the basic principles of dramatic structure, I began to look at how the plays work.
I combined my deep love of both playwrighting and playwrights with a growing desire to understand the Shakespeare plays in the moment of hearing them and came up with the protocol for the Play on! Program.
It is an experiment in the classic scientific sense. We kept all the variables the same, except for the language (there was a rule about not needing to translate everything, on average these are still 70% Shakespeare). What might we learn if we asked playwrights to look at how the language works from the perspective of dramatic action?
After a successful production of Kenneth Cavander’s TIMON OF ATHENS at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, I decided that the program needed to go big or stay home. So I asked Dave Hitz if he would support a commissioning program for 39 plays attributed, at least in part, to Shakespeare.
And that’s how this whole thing got started.
After three years of being in the room with playwrights and actors (replicating, in part, my assumption about the process 400 years ago), I decided that it would be fun and informative to share the translations with audiences at this stage of development, which is around second-draft-ish.
We’re not sharing them now because they are finished. They are not. I’m not sure plays are ever finished. They are often published, which is a different thing. The process of how we collectively put together a play is what interests me. And as with any development process, there are choices that will work, some that won’t, and some that we haven’t yet gotten to.
Hearing new plays with an audience at an early point in development is often a step in the new play process. So strap on your new play headphones, and listen to these. We’ve gathered amazing actors to lift the words off the page and set them into the air. “What sticks?” “What doesn’t?” These are the questions that I ask in the new play process.
Sharing them in the public forum of a play reading series is a way to have a conversation with the playwright about how to produce this play for an audience. Theater is still human-made for a certain group of actors, in a particular place, with a specific director, for a local audience. Having been in many rehearsal rooms where Shakespeare’s plays have been cut up and re-arranged to fit a production concept, I know that each time, these are different plays.
I look forward to talking with you about these news plays after you’ve had a chance to hear them.