Tag Archives: dramaturgs

My Book Is Out!

AudRevBooks

This image is shamelessly heisted from the TCG website. Link below.

And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar MosesJules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.

Order your copy here!

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The Problem with the Shakespeare “Translation” Controversy

There has been some fiery controversy around Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s announcement that they’re commissioning “translations” of all 39 Shakespeare plays into “modern English.” It was the rollout that launched a thousand screams of condemnation.

People were either condemning the idea that Shakespeare needed “translating” at all, or condemning the people who were protesting the “translations.” It was either “This is the death of art” or “People against this need to stop being so damn precious,” as if there was no room for mixed feelings or thoughtful discussion. I was a little disappointed in the terms of the discussion being set up as a battleground. I was asked to comment no less than ten times before I had even read the PR myself.

At first, I will admit, I was shocked that OSF would sponsor something that seemed so obviously horrible. Then I read OSF’s PR and realized what the problem was. In the PR, OSF referred to the project as modern language “translations,” and then went on to describe a project that couldn’t be further from that. The PR quotes OSF director of literary development and dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit as stating that the texts won’t be line-for-line “translations,” but much more subtle. Douthit is quoted as saying that she used the word because she likes “the rigor that ‘translate’ implies.” I have some skepticism about that quote. Considering that the most famous “Shakespeare translation” is the appallingly bad “No Fear Shakespeare,” the word “translation” in this context implies exactly zero rigor. It was a deeply unfortunate choice.

OSF has instructed its list of playwrights and dramaturgs– all of whom are leading national voices– to first, “do no harm.” Lines that are already clear are to be left intact. But what, exactly, does “clear” mean?

Let’s start with the bad news.

The pilot for this was Kenneth Cavander’s Timon of Athens. In it, Cavander sets the clarity bar incredibly low, and the resulting updates are problematic.

Original:

TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart? [Arden 3.4.77]

Cavander:

TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I have feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?

Original:

CUPID: Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all that of his bounties taste! The five best senses acknowledge thee their patron and come freely to gratulate thy plenteous bosom. There taste, touch, all, pleased from thy table rise, They only now come but to feast thine eyes. [Arden 1.2.121]

Cavander:

CUPID: Hail to you, worthy Timon, and to all who savor the feast he provides…The Five Senses salute their patron, and gratefully honor your unstinting hospitality. I will now present…Taste…Touch…and the rest of them. Please rise, everyone…You have been well fed, so now—a second feast…For your eyes only!

(Source)

While some of the “translated” lines above are stilted and clunky, I’m most concerned with accuracy and clarity. Cavander’s “Does my home, where I have feasted, show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?” is actually LESS clear than the original. Moving “show me” in the sentence order makes “like the rest of mankind” modify “me.” Now the house is showing an iron heart to Timon and all mankind, rather than the house joining mankind in showing Timon an iron heart. It’s not the only inaccuracy just in these two samples. “Have I been ever free” is rendered as “Haven’t I always been open with my friends,” which is a huge change to the meaning of the line. At the end of the second quote, “They only come now but to feast thine eyes” becomes the inaccurate (and trite) “so now– a second feast. For your eyes only!”

While I’ve only seen a handful of samples, in every one, Cavander’s “translation” is much deeper than it needs to be, discarding words and phrases that are clear on their own, and inserting stilted or inaccurate substitutions. So I respect the alarm some had when they discovered that OSF was commissioning like “translations” of the rest of the works.

Those who had no experience of the Cavander were alarmed by the word “translation” because, up to this point, it primarily meant uniformly awful modern updates like No Fear Shakespeare. No Fear is not only badly written, its “translations” provide a superficial understanding of the lines, and sometimes even inaccurate ones. A few examples: “sighing like furnace” becomes “huffing and puffing like a furnace”; “Bless you, fair shrew” becomes “Hello to you, my little wench”; “Two may keep counsel, putting one away” becomes “Two can conspire to put one away.”

There are excellent reasons to have legitimate concerns about a “translation” project. It’s not about being “precious”; it’s about the deep problems evident in previous “translations.”

But let’s look at the good news.

The Cavander “translation” is troubling, yes, but for the rest of the series (apart from The Tempest, which Cavander is also writing) OSF has commissioned a phenomenal group of writers: Christopher Chen, Sean San Jose, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Lloyd Suh, Migdalia Cruz, Aditi Kapil, Marcus Gardley, Naomi Iizuka, and Taylor Mac, just to name a few, supported by dramaturgs like Joy Meads, Nakissa Etemad, Julie Felise Dubiner, and Desdemona Chiang. These people are some of the cream of the crop of modern American theatremaking.

Most importantly, they’ve been instructed to leave language that’s clear intact, and I trust them to make good choices about what “clear” means. None of these writers could ever be accused of imagining audiences can’t understand difficult language. I also trust them to know the difference between “poetic” and “stilted,” and I trust those dramaturgs to prevent misreadings of lines that would wind up “translated” incorrectly.

Given the “do no harm” instructive and the focus on clarity, what’s surely happening here is not much different than what we all already do for production. The meanings of some of the words in Shakespeare’s texts have changed so completely in the past 400 years that performing them as is becomes, essentially, vandalism of the author’s intent. If you’re producing As You Like It, you can’t perform a phrase like “the humorous duke” and expect a 2015 American audience to understand that it means “unpredictably moody” and not “funny.” There are literally hundreds of words and phrases whose meanings have changed, and there are even more that are just no longer in use. Some are clear from context, particularly when seen acted on stage (prithee, anon, varlet, belike, wherefore), others, not so much (sack, doubt, shrift, horns, jointure, French slop). There are some words whose definitions are hotly debated (pugging, wappened). When we produce Shakespeare, we all make decisions about which words we leave intact, believing the audience will get the gist in context, and which need to be changed to preserve the meaning of the line. It’s rare to see Shakespeare completely untouched because it’s a foolish way to perform it.

And don’t forget that there’s no one definitive Shakespeare text. Every published edition, and many performance texts, are the result of a series of decisions made by an editor with every past edition, folio, and quarto open on their desks. With no definitive text, absolute purism is indeed just preciousness.

But the problem wasn’t precious purism. The problem with Shakespeare “translation” is not in what these playwrights will actually do– they haven’t even done it yet– but in the word “translation” itself. It’s one hell of a trigger. If OSF had used a less unfortunate, more accurate word, there wouldn’t have been a controversy.

We’ve covered the good and the bad– now it’s time for the ugly.

What if the doomsayers are right, and every one of these plays is as bad as the worst No Fear?

Well, so what?

There are already eleventy splatillion “translations,” adaptations, deconstructions, and the like of these plays. If Macbeth can survive Throne of Blood and Scotland PA, if Romeo and Juliet can survive West Side Story and Romeo Must Die, and if Hamlet can survive Strange Brew and The Lion King, then I think the plays will survive some of the best playwrights and dramaturgs in the country having a whack at deciding what to do about “horns” and “Barbary cock-pigeon.”

And I get that it’s upsetting to a lot of people that OSF, one of the stewards of Shakespeare’s work in the US, seems to be endorsing something you’re imagining as a combination of No Fear and Forbidden Planet, but if someone handed you a gigantic check, told you that it was only for this project, but that you could hire any playwrights and dramaturgs you liked, you would JUMP at the chance. This is EXACTLY what we want one of our flagship American theatres doing– paying artists to art. This is something to be celebrated. If you don’t like the results, well, don’t stage them or go see them. OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings. Just be glad that these enormously deserving artists landed this fantastic gig.

Personally, I’d be FAR more excited by full adaptations from these writers, engaging with the texts rather than “translating” them, but I wasn’t the one writing the check and telling OSF what to do with it. That honor belongs to Dave Hitz from the Hitz Foundation. Honestly, it’s wonderful that they’re supporting the work of all these artists. I think that should be the main focus here. People you admire– some of them your friends– are getting paid to do what they love. That’s a great thing, whether you love the resulting texts or not. Either way, Shakespeare will be fine.

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The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement

TCG is holding a multiyear inquiry about audiences called “Audience (R)evolution.”

The piece I wrote for it is called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement.” It’s a little . . . rabblerousy. Are you surprised?

luke.no

Check it out, leave a comment, share it on twitfacetagram. I’m thrilled that I was asked to contribute!

UPDATE: Please take a look at Jonathan Mandell’s excellent response to my piece in his blog, New York Theater. He takes me to task for adding to the culture of ageism we have in the theatre industry, and he could not be more right.

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You Need a Dramaturg (Because Clowns are Creepy, and Other Semiotic Shifts)

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I should be sorrier for this than I am.

Like everyone (right?) I have a running joke with a friend about how scary and creepy clowns are. It’s just a joke– considering I sleep every night with a Dell’Arte-trained actor, it’s obviously not an indictment of physical theatre professionals, for whom I have enormous respect. It’s not even related to physical theatre at all– it’s about the imagery. The idea that clowns in full makeup are creepy is now a pervasive cultural trope that everyone recognizes, whether they personally agree or not. It’s now more present in our culture than any other trope about clowns. Yet this was not always the case. I’m not interested in getting into why or how this happened (I’m sure someone’s writing a dissertation about this very subject). The point is that it HAS. And that this kind of cultural shift happens ALL THE TIME.

My husband in a student performance at Dell'Arte International with a fellow student.

My husband at Dell’Arte International, performing with a fellow student.

So my friend recently sent me this 2008 BBC article about the University of Sheffield study that surveyed 250 children between the ages of 4 and 16, and found that clowns were “widely disliked,” prompting researchers to urge children’s hospitals to consult with (shocking) ACTUAL CHILDREN before decorating their hospitals. The article goes on to quote a child psychologist:

Patricia Doorbar is a child psychologist in North Wales who has carried out research into children’s views on healthcare and art therapy.

She said: “Very few children like clowns. They are unfamiliar and come from a different era. They don’t look funny, they just look odd. (emphasis mine)

“They are unfamiliar and come from a different era.” OK, she knows clowns do indeed exist in this era. The ACTUAL point she’s making is that the semiotics of the clown– what that imagery means within the context of our culture– has changed dramatically from previous generations to today. In my father’s generation, children’s shows featuring clowns and clown toys were much more common. The trope about the scary clown existed (this Smithsonian article blames it on Grimaldi via Dickens and Deburau via . . . um, child murder), but was far less prominent in popular culture. In two generations, the meaning of that imagery in context changed enormously. When someone creates a clown character in popular culture today, it’s more likely to be something creepy than something lighthearted and fun, because that semiotic has shifted. Clowning for children still exists in popular culture, of course, just usually out of traditional makeup. A picture of a clown on the wall of a hospital, once (evidently) a comforting sight to most children, is now a frightening sight to most children. The “creepy clown” has supplanted the “happy, funny clown” as the primary trope about clowns in full makeup in our culture, and it happened fast. Lights up on a clown in full gear 50 years ago would generate a different audience reaction, and create a different set of expectations, than lights up on a clown in full gear today.

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Seriously, what do you think is going to happen next? Balloon animals or murder? From “Top 5 Clown Makeup Ideas” on designsnext.com

And so it goes with imagery, tropes, characters, and narratives throughout the entire history of dramatic lit. When we stage classic plays, we’re looking at material that comes from a world that no longer exists– a world full of symbols and tropes that have shifted meaning. For example, Taming of the Shrew was, in context, taking a bit of a stand. It stood out from the many popular shrew-taming comedies of its day in that it did NOT advocate beating women into submission. It instead advocated isolating them, starving them, gaslighting them, and denying them sleep until they became tractable and obedient. The Christopher Sly framing device demonstrates how well gaslighting works (and it’s inescapably connected that Sly, like Katherine, is in a position of social inferiority and relative powerlessness). You can convince anyone to believe anything as long as you control what they see, hear, and, ultimately, think. While Petruchio’s techniques are horrifying to us today (you can see them all codified in Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, a tool used by Amnesty International and domestic violence organizations to help people define and understand abuse), they were a gentler approach in the context of the time. Check out the scold’s bridle if you’ve never heard of it.

The idea that a woman who isn’t obedient and who speaks her mind is a “shrew” who needs “taming,” while not fully banished from our culture, is no longer mainstream. Petruchio’s techniques are now considered abusive. But understanding the historical context of the play provides a window into the playwright’s intent and opens the possibility of a recuperative staging that preserves that intent. And while Shrew may be an extreme and controversial example that some feel is unrecuperable (I’m honestly not even certain where I land on that myself, although there’s a local production about to open with an amazing team that I’m dying to see– if anyone can do it, it’s these badasses), the point stands. A dramaturg can help you navigate the wily waters of narrative and text in historical context if that’s something you’re not already doing yourself. And even if it is, a dramaturg might have access to resources or knowledge that you don’t possess, bringing in points of view or historical context you didn’t even know to look for.

Theatremakers are divided into three categories: Those who have no idea what a dramaturg does, those who think dramaturgs are for new plays, and dramaturgs. OK, that’s a joke. But I see people approaching classic work all the time with misguided points of view. Either they’re beating the playwright’s intent to death on the rocks of fussy (and ultimately egotistical) purism, or they’re making changes in the name of modernization that don’t make sense in the context of the work, that obfuscate rather than illuminate the work. If you’re not into historical linguistics or history, and/or if you don’t have a clear understanding of the culture and semiotics of your audience, get a dramaturg. Work with her before the first rehearsal. Let her help you conceptualize the work in a way that will preserve the writer’s intent, which means the engine of the play– what makes it kick ass, what makes it endure, what makes it work for audiences for decades or even centuries– remains intact and clearly presented for a 21st century audience. And that’s IMPOSSIBLE to do by just “doing the play” without thought to the distance between the play’s original cultural context and current one. Insisting on a purist interpretation is essentially insisting on changing the meaning of the play. The older a play is, the more this is true.

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Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even in plays that are much closer in time to us– Miller, Williams, O’Neill– there are symbols and tropes that either have completely lost their meaning, or whose meaning has shifted. For example, a man enters a living room where his sister-in-law is standing. The man removes his outer button-down shirt and is now just wearing a T-shirt. In 2014, that symbology would likely go completely unnoticed– a T-shirt has become perfectly acceptable public attire. Even an A-line undershirt is acceptable public attire. It’s no longer inappropriate for a man to take off an outer shirt and wear a T-shirt in his own living room in front of his sister-in-law. The original semiotic attached to that moment has been lost. If you want to preserve the intent– a man doing something that most people in the audience would consider inappropriately intimate– you need to do it another way, such as create that feeling through the acting. And if you don’t understand the historical context, the playwright’s intent for that moment is completely lost on you, or you may misread it as something else entirely. If you’re not well-versed in the history– and that’s no shame, plenty of great directors aren’t– a dramaturg will help you find and work with moments like these.

Conversely, a working knowledge of contemporary (and local– geography can change everything) symbology, popular culture, and slang can be crucial to speaking successfully to your audience. Terms change meaning, and the new usage may be obscure. You may think a line or a word means one thing to your audience when it really means another. I once saw a local director post on facebook that the community here is far too supportive and uncritical, so much so that people refer to it as the “Yay Area.” Or take, for example, the way words such as “mod” and “ratchet” have taken on new meanings. Think for a moment: There will be people in your audience who have never heard either term used ANY OTHER WAY. Sure, older people will think first of the Kinks and socket wrenches– but that’s my point. Understanding how meanings change in different contexts is important, and if that’s not your jam, then find a dramaturg, because I assure you, it’s hers.

I’m barely covering the beginning of what a dramaturg can do. A dramaturg is your in-house expert in research, narrative, semiotics, and history. Consider working with one! Wondering where to find a dramaturg in your area? I bet the fine folks at LMDA can help you.

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By Jon Wolter, from keepingwolteraccountable.tumblr.com

 

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