Originally Published as a blog article for Orlando Shakespeare Theater
Orlando Shakes upcoming production of The Adventures of Pericles is presented in partnership with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play on! 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare.” “Play on!” is a project that consists of 36 playwrights commissioned to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English. This project has caused many raised eyebrows in theater and literary communities across the country, with the common thought being, “Why the #$&% would you need to modernize Shakespeare?”
In light of this controversial undertaking, John P. Keller, New York based actor taking on the lead role of Pericles in Orlando Shakes upcoming modern production, offered to document his involvement in the project in a series of blog posts.
I landed in this room a bit by accident. The kind of accidental series of events that lead a pre-med student to drift out of the science library and into the theater department green room at a small liberal arts college. Truthfully, I think if it were not for the green room I never would have found the theater in the first place. Perhaps I should not admit this, but my love of the theater did not begin as a particular desire to be on stage, but rather the magnetic pull towards the people of the theater.
Artists tend to talk a lot. Conversations—perhaps contrary to popular belief—are not restricted to any particular discipline, philosophical mandate, or body politic. The theater (or perhaps more literally, in my initial experience, the green room) was where the sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, the historians, the literary geniuses, the scientists, the serious scholars, and the drifting goofballs met to discuss Rumi, Descartes, Shakespeare, Locke, Einstein, Mr. Rodgers, Big Bird, and Parker and Stone—all while exchanging recipes and fart jokes. It was this great sense of gathering that always gave me—the communal conversation—the seriousness of purpose without the over seriousness of self.
Recently, a hot topic lit up green rooms and theater gatherings across the country. The announcement by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that they would commission 36 living playwrights and dramaturges to translate 39 of the bard’s plays into contemporary English.
Upon the announcement, the green rooms exploded—for actors are nothing if not people with something to say. The discussion was pretty lopsided, with those who had a skeptical look on the project taking the lead:
“How can you translate something INTO English that already IS in English!?” was a pretty common refrain.
Prior to this announcement, Orlando Shakes announced that their annual season would include a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles.
In September 2015 during Orlando Shakes’ Annual PlayFest, the esteemed playwright Ellen McLaughlin presented a keynote speech that outlined her role as one of the commissioned playwrights for the “Play on!” translation project. In the days following, Orlando Shakes announced they would present a fully staged world premier production of McLaughlin’s new script in place of their originally announced Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Suddenly, Orlando Shakes virtual Green Room light up.
I have to be completely honest. When this project was first announced, I fell on the side of the indignant. I mean, why would this kind of project even be a considered? And by such reputable keepers of the Shakespeare legacy as the Oregon and Orlando Shakespeare Theaters?
Is this project trying to mute Shakespeare’s English? Especially considering so much of our contemporary lexicon is already inspired by the words and metaphors originated by Shakespeare himself!
As a sometime teacher of Shakespeare, I also had to ask, “if this project is a success, would it become an obstacle to inspire students to care about the original text?” And perhaps even more to my immediate concerns, “how can I expect a contemporary playwright to create a new text that is both different and reverent to Shakespeare as well as active and fun to perform?”
While these questions bounced around in my head, I set to reading the blog posts, the Facebook comments, and even the scathing editorial by James Shapiro in the New York Times—who called the project a “disturbing precedent.”
After a few weeks into this, I realized something: people get really upset—violently upset—over the silliest things.
I started to feel like this project, even the artists involved, where being maligned for seeing any value in what is in essence a national literary geek-fest. I should also clearly state that the contemporary writers involved are not your average “Joe’s/Jane’s”. These are accomplished writers and scholars of diverse backgrounds and styles. They are willingly stepping up and taking on a challenge. A challenge that, hopefully, will get more people talking about Shakespeare—even if just for a moment in their busy lives.
In the weeks leading up to the start of rehearsals at Orlando Shakes, I weighed a lot of questions on my mind, which could all be summed up as one big question, “What do I think of this whole thing?”
This question is a relevant one, as I signed up to play Pericles in Orlando Shakes originally announced production of Shakespeare’s text. Asking myself the question for a few weeks while reading all the opinions (defenses and detractions), I realized I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. The simplest position I could state over these last few anticipatory weeks was the philosophy of, “don’t knock it until you try it.”
After receiving my first draft of McLaughlin’s script, I approached Orlando Shakes about compiling a series of blog articles that might give insiders a view of the process from the actors’ perspective. Over the next several weeks, I will attempt to write a series of articles that will be more journal entry than scholarly critique. I am less interested in trying to convince anyone who might be reading this to feel one way or the other. Rather, I am hoping to compile some of the best questions and conclusions from the beehive green room.
The project that Orlando Shakes is embarking on has already garnered some attention. While that attention and energy can be fun for an actor, it does little for the practical everyday work of rehearsal. Much has been, and will continue to be, written on this project by individuals with far more intellectual prowess and experience than I have. However, few will actually get to experience what will happen in the room while rehearsing and staging this piece of “controversy.”
In the rehearsal room, the green room, the halls, and (dare I say it) the watering holes in and around Orlando Shakes, a group of 25 or so playmakers will step into a space and negotiate things like poetry, scansion, metaphors, and movement. We will engage in that debate from a place of love and care for a playwright long dead, but still present in our creative lives. The question remains, whether our work will succeed in breathing new life into a 400 year old play, or damage the very identity of what we loved about Shakespeare in the first place.
John P. Keller
John P. Keller is a New York based Actor as well as the Director of Education and Community Outreach for coLAB Arts in New Jersey, an organization that links artists with social advocacy and non-profit organizations to develop transformative new work with communities. He has taught at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers, the Rutgers School of Social Work, and at Westminster College of the Arts, Rider University.