The Future In The Instant (Macbeth)
Play on! Shakespeare (POS) started in the fall of 2015 at OSF, with the aim of translating Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.
Although it has not been without its critics, I confess that I am a dedicated fan of POS, to the extent that when my wife, Terry, and I were planning a trip to Europe in 2018, we built it around seeing the POS production of Troilus and Cressida in Prague. At the end of its three-year tenure at OSF, the producing team for POS, led by Lue Douthit, was able to secure continued funding to form a new not-for-profit company. In January 2019, they established this company, with a mission to enhance the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays in performance for theatre professionals, students and audiences by engaging with contemporary translations. Translations of all 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare were presented at the Play on! Festival in New York in the summer of 2019.
The series had to confront a number of issues thrown up by using Zoom for theatre.
The lockdown and the closure of theatres came just after Taylor Bailey, associate producer at POS, had taken part in a webinar via Zoom, and Taylor was convinced that POS could use Zoom in one way or another to continue the work of POS during this hiatus. It was Lue Douthit who devised a framework for the Zoom performances which was to become “First Reads”, a series aiming to replicate the initial table read on the first day of rehearsal.
Thanks to the generosity of the Hitz Foundation, POS was able to provide an honorarium to everyone involved in the project. In total the series involved some 160 actors and theatre professionals, all of whom had had some experience of POS, and so didn’t need to have the project explained, although since each of the readings had a different cast, they all had to be introduced to Zoom.
There were ten readings in the series, streaming live each Friday, beginning with Henry IV, Part One on March 27, and ending with Hamlet on May 29. These were supplemented by two free-standing readings to which I shall refer later. In a bizarre coincidence, one of the early readings was Edward III, about a monarch whose reign was beset with plague (although this does not feature in the play itself): the theatres were not closed (there were none to close) but public spectacles were abandoned.
The original notion for “First Reads” was to have two readings a week for five weeks, each preceded by a lecture, but this proved too ambitious and the final format was a weekly reading, with introductions from Lue, the director and the dramaturg of the selected play, but not a lecture. The team assumed the lockdown would be over by the end of May. The plays chosen could have come from a single genre (eg. all histories), but eventually the team settled on those translations which had not been produced in full before.
The series had to confront a number of issues thrown up by using Zoom for theatre. There could be no comic business, no costumes (aside from the occasional hat when an actor had double roles), music was difficult to incorporate, as were crowd scenes, and such activities as kneeling, bowing and fighting did not transfer easily into the new medium. Instead, attention focused on language.
The process demonstrated on many occasions that the contemporary POS translations could help make plot and themes clearer. For example, in King John, the word commodity in the phrase “kings break faith upon commodity” was replaced with “self-interest”, which not only clarified the messing, it even scanned.
I found the discussions preceding the readings full of interest. Actors posed pertinent questions, frequently about the pronunciation of names (often an issue with the Roman plays and the history plays), and the dramaturgs provided insights into context—I had forgotten that Titus Andronicus, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, refers to Pyramus and Thisbe (okay—perhaps I never knew...).
The performances themselves had some of the characteristics of radio plays or audio books, but they differed in, for example, indicating to the audience when non-speaking characters were nevertheless on stage and reacting.
Two other companies have followed the lead of POS in performing translations on Zoom. The National Asian American Theatre Company read Hansol Jung’s translation of Romeo and Juliet in May, and Alison Carey’s translation of Twelfth Night was “Zoomed” by the Hero Theater in June.
In the absence of live professional theatre, my hope is that POS will embark on another streaming series. In the meantime, my final word on Zoom, at least for now, is that it is likely to continue to be used as part of the rehearsal process. It obviates the need to rent a rehearsal space for that first read-through, it removes travel costs (and travel time) for cast and crew, and it’s environmentally-friendly. Welcome to the future in an instant.