The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new Play On! series will pair 36 playwrights with dramaturgs to translate each of Shakespeare’s plays, and create “companion pieces” for the original texts. OSF Artistic Director and Art of Change Fellow Bill Rauch responds to criticisms of the project.

By Bill Rauch at American Theater:

In fact, there are twin inspirations that guide all of our work, embedded in our mission statement: “Inspired by Shakespeare’s work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory.” The Play on! project, by commissioning more than 50 percent women writers and more than 50 percent writers of color, will bring a range of diverse voices and perspectives to the works of Shakespeare, in complete alignment with our mission-based commitments to both our namesake playwright and the cultural richness of our nation.

The second concern about the project lives in the misconception that our goal is to “dumb down” the language, that in fact this project is a symptom of the general coarsening of the English language. I have two pretty strong responses to this concern. First of all, I question the dangerously elitist assumption that old language is superior and new forms of language are somehow inferior. Shakespeare brilliantly invented new words at an alarming rate, sometimes daringly mashing up language from the streets with heightened poetry. I am not the first to observe that Shakespeare would probably have been a hip-hop artist were he alive today. What better way to inspire contemporary playwrights to aspire to Shakespeare’s epic scale and poetic achievement than to ask them to spend weeks with his work, one line at a time?

As importantly, in terms of the value of the translation exercise, we are not trying to “dumb down” but rather “specify up.” Let me explain. There are shocking and glorious layers embedded in some of the language that are only accessible to most people by footnotes (at best), including references to events that were completely local and contemporary to the playwright’s first audiences. Part of the promise of this exercise is to excavate some of the specificity and detail that may be lost to contemporary audiences. The clarity we aspire to get from the translations will make us better appreciate the vibrancy of the original. In this aspect of our endeavor, I am reminded of restorations of old paintings. When the layers of brown glaze that have accumulated over the centuries are carefully removed, the original colors can be astonishingly revelatory in their intensity.

This story was originally published on October 14th, 2015.