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Shakespeare & Beyond

How Play on! came to be: The backstory of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's translation project

Lue Douthit and Elise Thoron at Local Theatre in Boulder, Colorado, during a talkback after a staged reading of The Merchant of Venice.
Lue Douthit and Elise Thoron at Local Theatre in Boulder, Colorado, during a talkback after a staged reading of The Merchant of Venice.
Lue Morgan Douthit

Lue Morgan Douthit

When Dave Hitz, a long-time supporter and patron of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, proposed to OSF artistic director Bill Rauch that he would pay for the commission and development of translations of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary modern English, we were all stunned. What was he talking about!?!?!

It smacked against the grain of our belief system: while we contort productions of Shakespeare plays to provide relevance theatrically, we rarely touch the language. Oh, there are occasions to change gender pronouns, there are words that mean opposite today when they meant 400 years ago, and the plays are ALWAYS cut. Or at least that has been the practice at OSF for the past 30 years.

Some quick background on where I’m coming from: My entire career has been in the world of new plays. When I entered the theater world in the early 1990’s, it coincided with the rise of the profession of dramaturg, and being a cheerleader for new works seemed to be where I belonged.

Somehow, I ended up at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Which made me laugh. In four years of undergraduate school and eight years of graduate school, I never had a class in Shakespeare. OSF was just beginning to join the national movement to develop new works, and I was hired to be a scout and reviewer.

I rationalized that Shakespeare had been a new playwright once too, and so I have always applied my new play brain to his plays. (They will be new to someone, either in the audience or acting company, after all, and I think we should view them that way.)

But if you stop and think about it, the typical Shakespeare production follows an odd convention: a contemporary setting with Elizabethan language. What happens if we flip that? A contemporary language with an Elizabethan setting. What might we learn about the plays from putting them under that lens?

This is essentially the exercise that I have asked 36 playwrights and 38 dramaturgs to undertake with the Play on! project.

But the “rules”, such as they are, evolved slowly. The project didn’t just emerge whole cloth. There was a pilot program in which Dave Hitz supported the commission and development of five plays over a four-year period: two or three of them were to be adaptations (which Bill was initially more interested in) and two or three were to be translations (which Dave was definitely interested in). As the director of literary development and dramaturgy at the time, this project landed in my lap.


Hi Lue!

Dr. Tony E. Medlin — February 27, 2018