Bard fest hosts reading of ‘translated’ ‘Henry VI’ plays

‘Play On!’ project seeks to improve accessibility for the modern ear, and Colorado Shakespeare Festival is on board: ‘We’re not saying, ‘Yo, dude!’ or anything.’

In 2015, the oldest Shakespeare festival in the United States announced that it would commission 36 playwrights, including many women and writers of color, to “translate” 39 plays into “contemporary modern English.”

Intended to “bring fresh voices and perspective to the rigorous work of” translation, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play On!” project sparked instant, heated controversy and debate among Shakespeare aficionados.

“Some think it’s sacrilegious,” says Timothy Orr, producing artistic director at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, America’s second-oldest of its kind. “Others, like myself, have said, ‘Let’s not judge an artistic endeavor until it’s been attempted.’ If we held (Shakespeare) too holy and sacred, then we wouldn’t have ‘West Side Story.’”

According to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Each playwright is being asked to put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content. Our hope is to have 39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.”

CSF got in on the act in late October when it hosted a table reading of Colorado playwright Douglas Langworthy’s new “translation” of two plays, “Henry VI,” parts 2 and 3, directed by veteran festival actor and director Geoffrey Kent. The reading was held on the CU Boulder campus.

Kent and Langworthy approached CSF to host the reading — entirely paid for by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — after working together on the reading of the playwright’s translation of “Henry VI, Part 1” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts earlier this year.

“Doug’s got a pretty light touch, so it still sounds like Shakespeare. We’re not saying, ‘Yo, dude!’ or anything,” Kent says. “I really think the goal is to create scripts that are a little less legwork for the actor and a little more accessible to the modern ear.”

“To be honest,” Orr says, “many Shakespeare productions today are making small nips and tucks to the script, to make it more accessible and understandable. Occasionally words are replaced to help with understanding.”

CSF’s reading featured 10 members of Equity, the professional actors’ union, including two CU Boulder theater professors, Chip Person and Kevin Rich, and four non-Equity actors. Two CU Boulder undergraduate theater majors, Kristopher Buxton and Hannelore Rolfing, rounded out the cast.

Participating in “Play On!” is just the latest Shakespearean accomplishment at CU Boulder. The reading coincided with the unveiling of the lineup for next summer’s 60th season, when CSF will become one of the few companies in North America to perform Shakespeare’s complete canon two times.

In addition, the festival was instrumental in bringing to CU a prestigious exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio this fall, and next year CU Boulder will launch its first Shakespeare studies degree program.

Rebounding after several years of financial challenges and deficit spending, CSF ticket sales have exceeded projections every year since 2011, including this season. Orr says the organization projects that it will finish in the black for a fourth consecutive season after its fiscal year ends on Dec. 31.