“We think” are the operative words in that title. Given the vast number of moving parts, we aren’t exactly sure how we are going to pull this off. I keep saying, in my cavalier way, “We’re not inventing anything new here. We know how to do play readings.” But there are 39 of them over a five week period. It’s the scale, I think, that gets people’s attention.
All of the translations have been workshopped at least once. During the workshop period, I insisted on keeping the number of actors between 8-12. I am obsessed with how Shakespeare’s company might have presented the works; I have been heavily influenced by Bill Cain’s play EQUIVOCATION. (Side note: the play imagines Shakespeare’s company getting a commission from Prime Minister Robert Cecil to write about the Gunpowder Plot. Cain suggests that MACBETH is the play that Shakespeare wrote in order to satisfy the commission. In the play, Shakespeare is writing KING LEAR, and it was hearing those scenes interspliced with contemporary language that gave me the idea of how these Play on! translations might work. When I said this to Cain, he vehemently replied, “Don’t you dare blame this on me!”)
I am not a Shakespeare scholar, which should seem evident by now, but I am a theater practitioner and so I tend to look at plays as blueprints for performance, not as literary documents. Plays have that dual function, of course, and if it weren’t for the great work of Shakespeare scholars and historians, there would be a lot of contextual information that we wouldn’t have.
But sometimes, the practical theatrical conventions come into play. As do economics. Take the acting company: actors cost money, and I am convinced that Shakespeare’s plays were written for a smaller number of actors than we see in our contemporary theater. Today, we are accustomed to movie casting: one role, one actor. But that isn’t how theater was presented 400 years ago; Shakespeare wrote his plays to accommodate actors taking on multiple roles. (See Brett Gamboa’s SHAKESPEARE’S DOUBLE PLAYS for a thorough discussion of this.)
Initially we had the ambition to cast 390 actors, with 10 actors assigned per play reading. But even I realized that was insane, and so we began to think in terms of companies. Early on, we had four companies of 10 actors doing nine play readings. Still insane. Then we doubled that and worked out the math for eight companies of 10 actors doing five play readings. Which means that we need to cast 80 actors as core company members who will agree to be in five readings. And an additional 40 single reading contracts for guest actors. You following all that?
Try as I might, some of these plays need more bodies than 10 in the last act. It was bordering on ridiculous to have the same actor switching roles within scenes, and so we budgeted for 12 actors per reading. If needed.
The basic question that I am interested in asking is: how accessible is Shakespeare? And so I wanted to have as many different bodies and experiences on the stage as we could have with 10-12 actors. There are few actors who will only be reading one role. And I like the energy and challenge of that for the actors.
And because we are reading the plays, my main interest in hearing the language. The long thoughts in Shakespeare are still there in the translations. The poetry still needs to be delivered. And it takes experienced Shakespeares to make sense of the comedy. It doesn’t really matter to me that these be cast in conventional ways in regards to age, gender, or race. Unless such specifics are at the core of the play. Sometimes it is; but often it’s not.
Since I took the casting duties away from the playwrights, I decided that they should be able to invite a director they know to direct the reading. Every playwright needs a pal in the rehearsal room. We have a few “utility infielder” directors on tap, but for the most part, the playwrights are working with directors they know.
We’re basing the rehearsal period on the special New York 29-hour new play development model: three days of eight hour rehearsals with the public reading on the fourth day. These will be “your basic straight-up, music stand, scripts in hand” staged readings. With maybe some cheesy sound cues. Everybody knows how to do those, right? Times 39. Piece o’cake.
Next up: The Chronology
Previously in the Director’s Corner: Read How the Festival Came to Be