painting of shakespeare

The most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.—T. S. Eliot

My name is Lue. And when it comes to Shakespeare, I’m afraid I might be just a little bit tone-deaf.

And after working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for more than twenty years, I am grateful that there isn’t a competency test because I would not have had the terrific career I have had. But there is much relief in finally confessing my dirty little secret.

I am also a frustrated theatergoer. Because I know what I am missing: I have been in the rehearsal room and participated in the lengthy discussions that take place about what is being said; I have been involved in preparing texts which includes annotating; I have adapted two of the plays for small casts; I have written numerous articles for our publications and delivered as many lectures to our patrons. So of course I get the gist. It’s that I want more. I can hear it at 16 rpms, but not often at the zippy 78 speed that the language is designed to run. It can be as foreign to me sometimes as, well, a foreign language.

And oh boy, how I envy those of you who can hear it! My frustration (and confession) has led me to embark on a large-scale project to examine the language in Shakespeare. Thanks to the generosity of Dave Hitz, a longtime OSF patron, OSF is launching a new program called Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.

We negotiated a five-play commission package over a four-year period. The commissions would range from a kind of literal to adaptations. I sought out Kenneth Cavander, who did the translation for The Trojan Women that we produced years ago. It was muscular and poetic and darkly contemporary. He seemed able to capture the spirit of the original and it was highly accessible for both actors and audiences. But what do I know, I don’t know ancient Greek either.

So I pitched the idea about translating a Shakespeare play into contemporary modern English to Kenneth. I knew the puzzle part of the assignment would intrigue that amazing brain of his, and so he agreed to take this on. And he did exactly as I hoped he would: he approached it as a translation. The idea I presented to him is that this is a kind of photo-negative of contemporary practice: instead of updating the historical period and retaining the Elizabethan language, the time period stays at 1600 and it’s the language that is updated.

He began by testing different kinds of language use in different genres—scenes in iambic pentameter, soliloquys, big group scenes, comedic scenes, scenes with lots of rhetoric and so forth. At the end of this experimental period, some general rules emerged:

First, do no harm. There is no word for the kind of subtle and rigorous examination of language that I am interested in. “Translation” is as close as I can find. There is plenty of the language that doesn’t need translating. And there is some that does. I expect the equation of this will vary vastly from play to play.

Second, go line by line. No editing, no cutting, no fixing, no personal politics, no regionalisms. The story and characters and time period stay the same.

Third, and most important, the language has to retain the same kind of rigor and pressure as the original. Which means it still has to have rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action, and theme. Shakespeare’s astonishingly compressed language must be respected.

The translation is not to be a paraphrase, nor is it a literal explanation of what’s going on. The translations are not meant to be replacements of the originals. Our mission with this project is to learn a ton about the plays and to create performable companion pieces. They are new plays in that way.

After a series of discussions about which play to choose, we landed on Timon of Athens. For the most obvious reason: it isn’t a play that carries a lot of expectations. And there is some textual evidence that the play was co-authored with Thomas Middleton. Current Shakespearean scholarship is looking more into the collaborative nature of playwriting in late sixteenth century England. The idea of being in collaboration with Shakespeare has become a useful way to look at this project.

In April 2014, Dave and I flew to Montgomery, Alabama, to see a production of Kenneth’s Timon at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It was incredibly well-received by critics and audiences. (I want to give a shout-out to Geoffrey Sherman, the artistic director, for producing and directing the production.) Its success was a revelation to me.

So, again with the support of Dave Hitz, we are commissioning 36 writers to “translate” 39 plays over three years. In additon, each play will receive dramaturgical support, along with funds to cover the costs of a reading and a four-day workshop.

There are three things about this project that excite me:

First, understanding. Not only for those for whom English is a second language, but for those of us who want to understand more of the Shakespeare we hear.

Second, I wanted as wide and deep a “bench” as possible, and so I have committed to a pool of writers that is 51 percent women and 51 percent writers of color. There is a different reason for each writer chosen: some of the writers have theatre translation and/or adaptation experience; some of the writers are directors and actors; and some of them are writers that I wanted to get to know better. All of them have a deep relationship with language and an interesting connection with Shakespeare.

(For a listing of the writers and the dramaturgs attached to each play, please go to our website at

Third, there will be a dramatist’s perspective in the center of these plays for the first time in 400 years. Typically, we rely on information about the plays from actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, and scholars. I’m asking the writers to go into the plays (I keep joking about giving them coal miners’ hats) and see what they discover about how the plays work from within their structure. Compressing the length of the project to three years also was strategic. I just wanted a snapshot of “now,” how we think about Shakespeare now.

This is not the first time this has been done. It may be the first large-scale project involving so many dramatists and other theatre artists. We already adapt Shakespeare every time we produce the plays. And by that, I mean that we examine different versions (quarto versus folio), we edit scenes or move them around, we change words that have changed meaning over time, and we adjust language to fit casting choices and production concepts. (In fact, it’s a rare production of a Shakespeare play with everything intact.) But I’m curious to see what we learn about the language and how the plays work if we hold all the other variables in place.

I’m most often asked what will be done with these translations after they are completed. During the three-years of the program, I hope that they engender a deep dialogue about language in the theater. We also hope that they will be used as companion pieces to Shakespeare’s original texts. Just another version, in a way. Ultimately, we’d love to see them produced and OSF has a deep interest in facilitating that. I know of three other theatres that are already in conversation with playwrights to produce their translations. It will be interesting to have one or more of these translations produced at OSF at the same time we have committed to producing the entire canon in the original versions over this current decade.

I am aware that this might generate some, um, controversy, and I appreciate HowlRound giving me the opportunity to describe the project. I’m looking forward to any feedback here, in the comments, or at