ashland.news
July 18, 2024

Curtain Call: Translating The Bard’s words to contemporary English

Play On Shakespeare
Lue Douthit speaks at one of Play On Shakespeare's first post-reading discussions, this one with Elise Thoron, translator of "The Merchant of Venice," at the Local Theatre Company in Boulder, Colorado. Play On photo
December 26, 2023

OSF veteran Lue Douthit follows her passion for the playwright as director of Play On Shakespeare

By Jim Flint for Ashland.news

Lue Douthit’s parents built her a puppet theater when she was in third grade. She blames them for everything that ensued after that.

“Everything” includes 25 seasons (1994-2018) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as director of literary development and the co-founder and producer of the Black Swan Lab, a new play development program.

And it includes studies at four universities, earning a bachelor’s degree in history at Connecticut College, an MFA in playwriting and directing at Trinity University, a master’s in dramatic theory and criticism at the University of Arizona, and a doctorate in dramatic theory and criticism at the University of Washington.

Today she is president of Play On Shakespeare and has served as the sole direct report to its board since the beginning.

Lue Douthit is president of Play On Shakespeare. Play On photo

In the fall of 2015, OSF announced a new commissioning program, funded by the Hitz Foundation to enhance the understanding of Shakespeare’s plays.

“A typical Shakespeare production follows an odd convention: a contemporary setting with Elizabethan language,” Douthit said. “What if we flipped that? Contemporary language with an Elizabethan setting. What might we learn about the plays from putting them through that lens?”

Translating 39 plays

First as a program within OSF and then in 2018 as its own nonprofit, Play On has commissioned dozens of contemporary playwrights and translators to translate 39 Shakespeare plays into modern English, with a majority of the commissions being helmed by BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) and women playwrights.

Douthit was enthusiastic about the prospects of a spin-off from OSF.

“When the Hitz Foundation offered to fund a nonprofit in 2018 to continue the exploration, I couldn’t resist,” she said. “I also had two amazing colleagues — Taylor Bailey and Summer Martin — who were game to create a new nonprofit with me.”

The first time Douthit saw a translated play was in 2014 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It set the stage for everything else. The play was “Timon of Athens,” translated by Kenneth Cavander, who was the translator for “The Trojan Women” at OSF in 2000.

“I remember watching the audience in the second half. The fact that they all came back after intermission was notable. I mean, it’s ‘Timon of Athens,’” she laughed. “It’s a tough play. What I observed was that everyone around me was leaning in. They were listening intently,” she said.

An ‘aha’ moment

“I don’t know if they knew they were watching a translation. I don’t know if they cared. At the reception afterwards, I heard from many of them that they were deeply engaged.”

She knew then that there was something to the textual exploration she saw, and it led to their deciding to commission 39 translations.

She notes that every Shakespeare production is an adaptation of sorts. It can be as simple as cutting the play, streamlining the number of actors through doubling or setting the play in a different time and place.

But what if the play’s world stays in 1600 but the language is more modern?

“As an audience member, I want nothing between me and the actor telling me the story,” she said. “And even though I know what happens in the play, I still get bogged down often in performance when the syntax is gnarlier than my brain can unravel.”

Play On’s translations are a blend.

“I think people would be surprised to hear that the vast majority of the language in the translations has remained Shakespeare’s,” she said.

It’s believed that Shakespeare was constantly changing the components of his plays. How he wrote in his early career is not the same as his middle or late career. He also took stories from history and literature and adapted them for the stage.

“So, I find hm infinitely innovative,” Douthit said. “And that’s the spirit I think contemporary Shakespeare productions imbue.”

A catalyst role, too

Play On doesn’t have a stake in the ownership of the translations. They belong solely to the playwrights. That means that theaters, schools and community programs that want to use the scripts for performances must negotiate with the playwrights and/or their agents.

However, Play On can help productions see the light of day.

“We are aware of the financial challenges post-pandemic,” she said. “With the generosity of the Hitz Foundation, we are able to provide some production support to help with royalty payments and other production costs.”

Douthit believes Shakespearean theater plays a role in contemporary society and that Play On helps contribute to Shakespeare’s relevance.

“Barry Edelstein, current artistic director of (San Diego’s) The Old Globe, once said that we reproduce the classics in order to assess where we are today,” she said.

“I believe that theater is a reflective art form. And that doesn’t always mean the mirror of the moment. It also means the past.”

Douthit argues that the actions and motivations revealed by Shakespeare’s characters in the moments they make decisions are extraordinary morality tales.

“They are all about the consequences of unchecked power,” she said. “I think we always need artificial reminders about the consequences of our actions in real life, and I think Shakespeare is one of the best reminders.”

Play On is on tap to sponsor 17 productions in 2024, as well as a handful of development workshops for new translations.

Jeff Whitty’s translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be produced at Idaho Shakespeare in July and at Great Lakes Theatre in Cleveland in September.

Closer to home, Sean San Jose’s translation of “Coriolanus” will be co-produced by Portland Center Stage in April and at OSF mid-July to mid-October, in association with upstart crow collective.

For more information, go to playonshakespeare.org.

Reach writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

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