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Let them ‘Play On!’

On September 29th, 2015, the critically-acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) announced its three-year commissioned project Play On! 36 Playwrights Translate Shakespeare. In it, 36 playwrights are paired with 36 dramaturges to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary English by December 31st, 2018, according to the OSF website.

The mission of Play On! is to “inspire audience members to return to Shakespeare’s original texts, ideally with much greater understanding and enjoyment.” As such, the translated pieces will primarily serve as educational tools, to encourage people from all backgrounds and ages to become interested in Shakespeare’s original works.

Not everyone was as stirred by the idea, however: the announcement of the project caused an outcry from theatergoers and Shakespeare lovers alike across the social media board. On Facebook, one man calls the new initiative a “travesty,” and another says, “[OSF has] such a stellar rep… Which is why I am dumbfounded by this decision.” Some people accuse OSF of attempting to change Shakespeare’s words and taking away from the themes and messages that arise from his original works. One Twitter user even relates what OSF is doing to “burning” the original plays written by Shakespeare. However, I believe these people are missing the whole point of Play On!  

OSF is in no way trying to change the original texts, and I do not think that could be done even if they tried. OSF states they see the translations as “complementary, as companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts, not as replacements.” Play On! sets two major rules for selected playwrights. The first is they must “do no harm” to the original texts by pledging not to cut or edit scenes/ add personal politics to them. The second is that playwrights must “put the same kind of pressure on the language as Shakespeare put on his” meaning they must consider the meter, rhyme, rhetoric, rhythm, metaphor, character action, setting, time period, references, and themes of the originals.

Play on! employed 36 playwrights and dramaturges from various backgrounds. OSF promised that the group of writers is at least 51% female and 51% writers of color, which shows their commitment to embracing voices from diverse backgrounds. Each play will also include a workshop with a director and actors to provide insight on what is working in the translation and what is not before the final draft is submitted.

Furthermore, OSF is dedicated to producing all of Shakespeare’s plays between 2015 and 2026 in their original texts. By doing this, OSF is redefining themselves as a leader of Shakespeare productions worldwide, and hopefully the translated pieces will encourage audiences to see the play in its original format.

In his opinion piece on Play On! in The New York Times, James Shapiro does make a concerning point that other professional theaters and university departments are already planning to produce OSF’s translated versions of the shows. However, I think if these places have the same intent as OSF— to gain more awareness in Shakespeare’s original texts and the desire to see them produced in original language— they are well-intended and present a great opportunity to draw a larger audience and interest in Shakespeare.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the most well-known, attended theatre festivals in the world. With Shakespeare in its name, I think one of OSF’s obligations is to bring innovation and new ideas to Shakespeare’s works while still respecting and honoring them. Play On! does just this; a project glowing with diversity, employing 36 playwrights/dramaturges, providing new educational tools, and bringing in a new generation of audience members while still staying true to the original intent of Shakespeare’s works? I would support this initiative any day.


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Bella Wilcox

Bella Wilcox

Bella Wilcox is a senior studying Communication and Theater and Performance Studies. She is a writer for Stanford Journalism's Peninsula Press and her poetry will be featured in the upcoming edition of the Stanford Journal of Asian American Studies. Her original play will premiere on campus this spring. Bella is a freelance DJ and concert planner.