In this my second and final piece on Bill Rauch, I want to concentrate on his legacy. As he prepares to leave OSF, two of the initiatives begun during his time here look to be assured of a future.
The American Revolutions cycle, launched in 2008 under the direction of Alison Carey is expected to last at least until the mid-2020s, with a number of commissions for the series already in the pipeline. This remarkable cycle has made full use of the potential afforded by the size of the OSF acting company (the largest in the country), to tell stories, sometimes on a large canvas, which explore the nature of American identity. Of the 32 American Revolutions developed plays to date, eight have already been produced at OSF, with a ninth and tenth, Between Two Knees and Indecent, to be staged here in 2019. OSF’s website says of this series “American Revolutions works to establish a shared understanding of our nation’s past while illuminating the best paths for our nation’s future”—a similar claim could be made for Shakespeare’s own history plays, which is not surprising since this cycle was to no little extent inspired by his.
One distinctive feature of the cycle has been the collaboration between OSF and other theatre companies across the nation and internationally: Indecent, for example, was co-commissioned with Yale Repertory Theatre, and has already been seen on Broadway before it arrives in Ashland. Another play in the cycle, Sweat, has been very well-received in London. Some members of the audience may have assumed that all new American drama staged at OSF in recent seasons has been part of the American Revolutions cycle and so, for clarity, I am adding a sidebar to identify the constituent plays.
A second initiative, the Canon in a Decade project, has five more seasons to run. Productions of popular plays like King Lear and Richard III are still to come, but so are more challenging productions such as The Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and King John. If I was a gambling man, I’d put money on an outdoor production of The Tempest to close the project and the 2024 season!
One initiative which began under Bill Rauch has come out from under the wings of OSF. Play on! whose work has been sponsored by the Hitz Foundation is now established as an independent company, under the leadership of the indefatigable Lue Douthit. It will shortly celebrate a milestone: readings of shortened versions of all its 39 translations of Shakespeare will be produced in New York later this spring. A company of actors and directors will stage these texts at the Classic Stage Company in New York City from May 29 to the end of June in an order which approximates to the order of composition of Shakespeare’s originals.
Just as the commissioning of the American Revolutions cycle embraced the idea of a diversity of writers, so too has Play on! Whatever your view on the identity of the person who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems (and I have never been employed to impersonate the Earl of Oxford!), it is certain that the Play on! translators are not all white males, any more than the writers of the American Revolutions plays have been. Play on! has also mirrored the practice of American Revolutions in collaborating with other Shakespeare companies. Some of the translations have been staged in Alabama, in Florida and as far away as Prague.
After June, the life of Play on! will develop in new directions: translations have already been used by theatre companies, in whole or part, to help in their productions of Shakespeare ‘s original plays, and by schools for intensive Shakespeare workshops. This latter activity continues the long-standing OSF commitment to outreach and to education, and may well play a part in introducing a new audience to OSF.
The publication of Play on! translations in print and via audio-books looks to be a distinct possibility, as well as the extension of translations into sign-language, and perhaps even productions with regional accents. There has been some opposition to the project from those who would wish to preserve the “purity” of Shakespeare’s original language: I am sorry to say that I question the motivation of some of these objectors—they are like those who want their operas only in the original Italian or German, so they can exclude the masses and have high culture solely for themselves.
When the new OSF artistic director takes up the reins this summer, it will be interesting to see if they decide to replicate the New York Play on! Festival here in Ashland at some future date. In any event, it seems extremely likely that speeches from these translations will be used as audition-pieces in the coming years. Having said that, it was never the intention that these translations would become permanent features of the repertoire. They represent a snapshot of what Shakespeare sounds like in the English of early twenty-first century America and they will need to be replaced and updated in years to come—just as the plays of Ibsen are currently translated into contemporary Norwegian.
If just one actor, audience member or student finds that, as a result of the Play on! project, they have an epiphany about the meaning of a single line of Shakespeare, then the entire project will have been vindicated, and the faith of the Hitz brothers and the work of Lue Douthit rightly rewarded.
Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email firstname.lastname@example.org