There have been many choices that have made the Oregon Shakespeare Festival successful over our 80-year history, but the strongest through-line is the festival’s ability to remain faithful, attentive to, and frankly in love with our namesake playwright. The festival’s history is also one of continual innovation. The relationship between tradition and innovation is not always easy, but it’s in the spirited dialogue between those two values that we continually learn how to reach more people and how to engage audiences more deeply. Our new Play on! translation project fits squarely in the heart of that conversation between fidelity and innovation.
I am not surprised that the project has generated both excitement and concern. There is enormous excitement about our incredible commissioned artists entering these texts and giving audiences a different lens for experiencing them. The concerns seem to be twofold; the first is that we somehow intend these new translations to replace the original texts, and the second is that we are “dumbing down” the language.
By commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to examine each of Shakespeare’s plays, we have the opportunity to delve more deeply into the language of the texts and to create companion pieces (not replacements) to the original texts. It is our hope and expectation that these translations will inspire audience members to return to Shakespeare’s original words, ideally with even greater understanding and enjoyment.
OSF has produced the 37-play Shakespeare canon in its entirety four times, and last year we committed to producing the canon for a fifth time over the course of a single decade, from 2015 to 2024. All of these productions will use the original texts. Shakespeare’s language is made accessible to our audiences through the genius of actors and directors working at the peak of their game, but also through the participation of deeply experienced Shakespeare experts as voice and text directors and dramaturgs.
The Play on! translations are not being commissioned because we despair that people will never understand the original language; the more than 300 Shakespeare plays we have staged since 1935, the three dynamic Shakespeare productions we are performing right now and the five scheduled for 2016 strongly testify to the contrary. Instead, the translation project is about creating a new body of work, one that represents what we hope will be a fruitful encounter between contemporary writers and the English-language dramatist who is frequently considered the greatest that has ever lived. One or more of these translations may be produced at OSF in the years ahead, but they will be produced in addition to, not instead of, the entire original canon.
As reflected in our mission statement, OSF is committed to “broadening its cultural reach.” Whether it’s new work, Golden Age musicals, European or American classics or classic plays from around the globe (including, in recent seasons, works from China, India, Japan and Nigeria), OSF wants to tell the most dynamic possible breadth of stories that reflect the diversity of the United States. In 2008, OSF announced American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, a 10-year commissioning program of 37 plays that spring from moments of change in U.S. history. One of those plays, All the Way, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2014.
In fact, there are twin inspirations that guide all of our work, embedded in our mission statement: “Inspired by Shakespeare’s work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory.” The Play on! project, by commissioning more than 50 percent women writers and more than 50 percent writers of color, will bring a range of diverse voices and perspectives to the works of Shakespeare, in complete alignment with our mission-based commitments to both our namesake playwright and the cultural richness of our nation.
The second concern about the project lives in the misconception that our goal is to “dumb down” the language, that in fact this project is a symptom of the general coarsening of the English language. I have two pretty strong responses to this concern. First of all, I question the dangerously elitist assumption that old language is superior and new forms of language are somehow inferior. Shakespeare brilliantly invented new words at an alarming rate, sometimes daringly mashing up language from the streets with heightened poetry. I am not the first to observe that Shakespeare would probably have been a hip-hop artist were he alive today. What better way to inspire contemporary playwrights to aspire to Shakespeare’s epic scale and poetic achievement than to ask them to spend weeks with his work, one line at a time?
As importantly, in terms of the value of the translation exercise, we are not trying to “dumb down” but rather “specify up.” Let me explain. There are shocking and glorious layers embedded in some of the language that are only accessible to most people by footnotes (at best), including references to events that were completely local and contemporary to the playwright’s first audiences. Part of the promise of this exercise is to excavate some of the specificity and detail that may be lost to contemporary audiences. The clarity we aspire to get from the translations will make us better appreciate the vibrancy of the original. In this aspect of our endeavor, I am reminded of restorations of old paintings. When the layers of brown glaze that have accumulated over the centuries are carefully removed, the original colors can be astonishingly revelatory in their intensity.
Finally, I hope that we can all keep in mind that this is one artistic experiment. West Side Story didn’t replace Romeo & Juliet. Happily, it expanded the theatrical canon and it gave us a new lens by which we can appreciate Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The past 400-plus years have proved that the man from Stratford is pretty darned tough and durable. In fact, I have no doubt that my colleagues and I and future generations will continue to turn to the extraordinarily rich language of William Shakespeare as long as the English language exists.
Bill Rauch is the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
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