The Gift of Shakespeare
In 1985, my mother gave me what was perhaps the best gift anyone has ever given me. She took me to see A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was a fairly typical five year-old who was obsessed with He-Man and Star Wars. I dealt with normal little kid problems—grappling with ADHD, and simultaneously worshipping and hating my big brother, who was two years older than me.
My mom was a double major in English and Theatre at the University of North Alabama at the time. She had to pry my brother and I away from our action figures and drag us to the Norton Auditorium at UNA to see Alabama Shakespeare Festival's touring production. It blew our minds.
Memory is funny, and now all I can really remember from that production is the mechanicals’ re-enactment of the Pyramus and Thisbe love story in the play within a play; and Oberon and Puck putting on sunglasses whenever they turned invisible. For months, my brother and I replayed the hilarity of Thisbe's suicide in ASF’s production. We also frequently pretended to be Oberon and Puck as we snuck around our neighborhood.
Since that first experience, I have had an embarrassment of riches interacting with the Bard. He's my favorite poet and playwright. Which is why I'm delighted to hear about Oregon Shakespeare Festival's much debated "translations" of Shakespeare's plays.
New City, New Theatres
When I was ten, my family moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Previously, Paducah, Kentucky, had been the biggest town I had lived in. It had a building ten stories tall! So, Louisville was a big step up. It was also a big step up in terms of access to theatre. My mom started teaching theatre at the local performing arts high school, and my dad built sets for several of the professional companies in town, including the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, nestled in the heart of urban Louisville and right in Central Park.
The summer I was eleven, KSF produced The Merry Wives of Windsor and they wanted to cast a kid as Robin, the page who ferries notes back and forth between the titular wives and the buffoonish villain Falstaff. I got the part. Maybe it was my stunning array of talent and charm, or maybe it was the fact that my dad was an employee at KSF; they figured he'd make sure I showed up on time to rehearsal.
Either way, I was immersed in Shakespeare for two months, and everyone was amazing. Actors took time to explain lines, teach me new words, and point out all the dick jokes I was missing. I heard all the notes the director gave to help the actors make the meaning of each line clear with gesture, tone, and intention.
The actress playing Mistress Page sat down and narrated Henry IV, Parts I and II, as well as Henry V because I had no idea who Falstaff was. My mom also made sure to explain that it was King James' love of Falstaff that encouraged Shakespeare to resurrect a character he killed in a previous play. I learned so much.
A year later, my family moved to the Old Louisville neighborhood, about two blocks away from Central Park. Throughout my middle school and high school years, all I had to do was walk two blocks over to observe KSF rehearsals, and start learning again. I would then wander over a few nights later to get a seat at the productions, which are, miraculously, still free and un-ticketed.
Some people get excited about the first Christmas decoration they see every year, but I get excited about the first tell tale signs that KSF has returned to Central Park for another summer. Over the years I've seen dozens of free productions at KSF. I've seen the Bard in production elsewhere at college, and at a variety of high schools, including the performing arts high school I attended. I've also had the chance to perform in a few of Shakespeare's works and choreograph a production of Taming of the Shrew set in the 1920's.
For far too many people, their lack of exposure to Shakespeare’s work is due to time, money, and access.
The Embarrassment of Riches
But it all goes back to that first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's when it started. What if my mom had been too tired to take us to that show? What if she'd been too broke to enroll in college at UNA? What if she had desperately been hoping to introduce us to the Bard, but had been working a second job, and couldn't get off work on that fateful night?
The language centers of my brain were literally still forming and moving around in my thick little skull the first time I was given the gift of Shakespeare, and it changed everything for me. But there are a hundred ways I could have missed out, and almost all of those reasons boil down to time and money.
Despite the valiant efforts of theatre companies like Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there is still an ocean of students who don't get exposed to Shakespeare until they are much older. Shakespeare’s language—that beautiful, unparalleled, amazing language—becomes a barrier instead of a gift. For far too many people, their lack of exposure to Shakespeare’s work is due to time, money, and access.
I love Shakespeare, and I will always personally prefer the unadulterated version of his words. Let's be clear: I don't claim to speak Elizabethan English fluently. There are still words I puzzle over, and phrases I work through. But I was taught to love this process and value Shakespeare’s words by a host of people who shared that love, starting with my mother. This experience leads right up to today. Any Bardophile in Louisville can walk up to Matt Wallace, the Artistic Director of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and chat with him as he stands at the back of every single performance of KSF's ten-week summer season.
So, here's my question to all the people who counterfeit to swoon when they hear about the "translations" at OSF: who gave you the gift of Shakespeare? And why would you discourage passing on this gift, even if it is in a different form than when you first received it?
Special thanks to Katie Perkowski of Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Rob Silverthorn, III of Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. They both dug through their organizations' production archives for this article.