Behind the scenes at Orlando Shakespeare Theater

The Writing of Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles – PART I

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First day of rehearsal for Orlando Shakes production of “The Adventures of Pericles”

The following blog post is the second installment from actor John P. Keller, taking on the lead role of Pericles in Orlando Shakes upcoming modern verse production, of his documentation of the controversial project to translate Shakespeare into contemporary modern English.  



The Translation, Adaptation, or Re-Writing of Shakespeare’s  and Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles

John Keller

John P. Keller

First Impressions
The first day of rehearsal is a lot like taking your dog for a visit to the local dog park. The metaphor works if you include things like the anticipation of a new place, the excitement of an active play date with some old friends, and the sniffing out of some new faces (or, well… y’know). Then there is that moment—when someone pulls out the tennis ball. Everyone sits on baited breath, attentive—waiting for the game to begin. It’s not altogether dissimilar with the distribution of the show script and the first group read. It’s an act of ceremony.

Once everyone has gone around and said their names and the roles they will attempt to play (I say that with reverence not cynicism), it is the job of the actor who utters the first printed lines to take the play from theoretical to actual, to set a six week rehearsal marathon into motion.

This was how we all began the first day of rehearsal for Orlando Shakes production of The Adventures of Pericles.

Then began a slow series of revelations.

We are working on a revered ancient text…kind of…

We are working on a new play…kind of…

We are working alongside a beloved 400 year old master playwright…kind of…

We are working on something altogether familiar and altogether different…yes.

We are here in a room with a living breathing playwright with her own hopes, fears, opinions, goals, hesitations, and confidences… most definitely.

When working on Shakespeare, I typically find ceremony in the work. William Shakespeare—to actors of Shakespeare’s plays—believe him to be alive in the text. He gives us direction through poetry, enjambed lines, and punctuation. He is both enlightening and utterly frustrating—not to mention annoyingly cajoling and eerily silent.

This last of Shakespeare’s greatest attributes (his death 400 years ago) means that as an actor you can whine about him as much as you like without hurting his feelings. “What was he thinking—drinking—when he wrote this?!”

But when you have a living playwright in the room…not so much.

The Living Playwright
Ellen McLaughlin is not an imposing figure. She sits at the table with a MacBook and peeks around the room from behind a cup of coffee. Anyone who might not have been aware of her work prior to the first rehearsal may not have picked her out at all. She introduced herself on the first day simply as “the playwright, with some help from Shakespeare.” The joke landed well, as it sarcastically underlined many questions not yet answered about this process. Is this an adaptation, a translation, or plain and simply an entirely new play? It’s this question that underlines the tension amongst the actors—to put it bluntly, we are curious about these “writers” who are going to come in here and “translate” our good friend Will’s work.

First read-throughs have a range of emotional context. First, as I mentioned before comes the sniffing out. Second, the anxiety of having to read aloud your part for the first time in a room full of respected peers (hoping to hell you don’t make a fool of yourself). Lastly comes the laying out of the production process: what will the costumes and set look like, what will the sound design be reminiscent of, and will stage management have brewed enough coffee to last the length rehearsal? This usually plays out very quickly on the first or certainly by the second day of work.

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The Arden Shakespeare edition (left) compared to Ellen McLaughlin’s script. 

It is common practice at Orlando Shakes to do a two-fold table work process. After the initial read of the performance script, we investigate the script before worrying about staging. We start by going back and reading the unedited first folio. This process allows the director and performer to see what parts of the script have been cut, what plot points have been abbreviated or lost, what characters have been combined, and what were the original punctuations and spellings before Arden got their hands on it. This process allows us to understand the full range of assets the script has to offer. The actor can then mine the literature for an active meaning to bring the play to life.

Once the full scene has been read in the folio, we go back and speak aloud our own paraphrased version of the text (sound familiar). We as actors put into our own vernacular what we think the character is saying. We then solicit feedback from everyone at the table about what all the translational possibilities might be. It is a process that holds a simple truth: the best idea in the room can come from anywhere and it is always better to favor the sharing of ideas than the stroking of ego.

Once the folio and paraphrasing process has been completed, we then go back and re-read the scene from the show script—and reap the rewards of all our detailed mining.

Perhaps this process—and processes like it used at theaters everywhere—has lead to this next step of creating a paraphrased/translated/modern language adaptation project. Basically, if the actors and artists do this anyway to find the play, why can’t the audience just participate in the same process by hearing the play spoken in modern language?

When working on a new play, particularly a world premier, it is common to have the playwright in the rehearsal room as part of the process. The advantages are very real. You have a primary source who can answer questions in real time. They can help you understand concepts or rationales behind plot points and their reasons for word choice.

The process of questions from the actors is also beneficial for the playwrights. In a first production they are typically still finalizing their script. If the play is successful it will be produced many times, and the future of the work depends on it being able to stand alone with out the need for constant explanation or rationalization from the playwright. It becomes a thing that lives beyond the person who created it.

Now imagine that having a playwright and a director in a room is like having two parents who are organizing a family vacation—the actors are the kids. Usually responsibilities are divided up before departure. You are in charge of food and I will organize transportation. However every once in a while mom may disagree with dad for taking that right turn. Or dad my criticize mom’s decision to feed the kids fast food. Those are the moments when the kids (actors) get very quiet and just sit back and watch and listen, waiting to see who wins. Now imagine sometimes the kids just don’t want to do what they are told.

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Ellen McLaughlin, playwright, and Jim Helsinger, director. Photo by Lisa Wolpe. 

Fortunately in this process we have two pretty well organized and complimentary parents. Ellen understands Jim’s need to have a clear streamlined production that will meet the artistic needs of the theater. And Jim knows that Ellen has given much care to creating a script that meets the modern language needs of the project. It’s easy to go on an adventure when the guides are having fun. Likewise the room of actors—while sometimes resistant—are a pretty fun group to travel with.

In PART II, I will get into a little more detail about some of the questions, speed bumps, and “ah-ha” moments that are coming up in the process.

Yours,
John P. Keller


John P. Keller is a New York based Actor as well as the Director of Education and Community Outreach for coLAB Arts in New Jersey, an organization that links artists with social advocacy and non-profit organizations to develop transformative new work with communities. He has taught at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers, the Rutgers School of Social Work, and at Westminster College of the Arts, Rider University. 

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