Behind the scenes at Orlando Shakespeare Theater

The Writing of Ellen McLaughlin’s Pericles – PART III


John P. Keller as Pericles and Kimmi Johnson as the Goddess Diana. Photo by Tony Firriolo.

The following blog post is the fourth 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. Part III

The Writer’s Equation and The Actors’ Math. 

Part of the joy of acting heightened language is that it is not colloquial, modern, or simplistic. My grad school voice teacher passed on the idea that Shakespeare is: “crazy shit, happening to incredibly articulate people.” Modern Shakespeare actors do not apologize for the complex language—the antique-ness of it, is its value. You are given permission to live as large as life itself in the ways that ancient language allows. As fellow Pericles actor Richard Watson puts it “What we do is not brain surgery or rocket science, but it is oddly complex.”

There is joy for an actor to speak true Shakespeare lines like:

Prithee, speak.
Falseness cannot come from thee, for thou look’st
Modest as Justice and thou seem’st a palace
For the crowned Truth to dwell in. I will believe thee
And make my senses credit thy relation
To points that seem impossible.

Shakespeare’s language may not flow on the page to modern eyes. However, actors get to prove themselves worthy of these plays by using their bodies, breath, and active minds to live out the text for modern ears. When a modern ear hears an ancient piece of literature and understands the action of the play, they delight in their own intelligence, emotion, and creativity. The challenge then to the modern playwright is to find a way to replace or adjust indiscernible words and structures while still keeping the magical voyage of an elevated sentence. This is because at the end of the day the “PlayOn!” project is not creating contemporary plays, but adjusting classical text for contemporary ears. The success and failure of that concept is yet to be determined.

This may create a new equation for the writers, but the work of the actor doesn’t change much. The math actors use to make the text active and clear is: scansion, alliteration, rhyme, enjambment, repetition, antithesis, comparison, lists, and capitalization.


John P. Keller as Pericles. Photo by Tony Firriolo.

Actors have spent time, energy, and passion to learn the complex equations to make the play work. However, if we believe that this equation is inherently challenging and filled with obstacles, we would have to admit that sometimes those obstacles are too hard to overcome. The obtuse text in essence fails us as performable in contemporary culture. No matter how hard we actors work to keep this conclusion from being made, we have to allow the possibility that a text adjustment might make the play better.

Ellen McLaughlin laid out her process for contemporizing the language of Pericles in her Keynote delivered at Orlando Shakes PlayFest this past fall. It should be very clear that the plot and essence of the play have not changed, mainly because the “PlayOn! project forbids it. She sets her work “re-writing” as having more to do with audience understandability. While we actors might like to think ourselves invincible in our ability to make anything make sense as long as we ourselves have a sense of the meaning, I have to wonder if we—and our audiences—may benefit by some dramaturgical aid.

Above I gave some examples of the flow of the Wilkins vs. Shakespeare. Below I attempt a comparison of the 17th Century (Shakespeare/Wilkins) text and the 21st Century (McLaughlin) text. The lens I am using is an actor lens—looking for the text that makes the most actable moment onstage. In all the examples the original text as published by the Arden appears column left and the new text based on our Orlando Shakes performance script is on the right.

Here is an excerpt from the first scene where Pericles responds to the villainous Antiochus:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.37.15 PM

In the following example, Pericles relays the danger of Antiochus to his trusted confidant Helicanus:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.37.45 PM

Here Pericles is affirming his trust in Helicanus and expressing his concerns over Antiochus.

This is the finale of the same scene. As an actor I cannot help but appreciate the adjusted text—its ability to share the essence of the moment and create a flow of thought that leaves no room for confusion in the listeners mind:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.38.13 PM

Believing that Shakespeare’s Pericles was co-authored with Wilkin’s who probably wrote the above—and personally believing Shakespeare to be the stronger writer—I completely value the rewritten text above as an improvement. That early speech, if indeed written by Wilkins, doesn’t favor understandability. The re-write doesn’t just make the language fit contemporary understanding, but makes the flow better for the action of the play. Another example:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.38.22 PM

I find it hard to present examples of lines or changes I mourn because the truth is much hasn’t changed. I mourn the loss of any change in that I love the original text, but so does everyone involved in the process. The playwright has gone a long way to keep either the exact wordings of or the essence of many of the truisms. Bellow is a particularly fun alliterative line from the Pericles/Helicanus scene. There is a delight in saying Shakespeare’s text, which loses a little something in the re-write. While I do agree the new line better fits modern speech it still hurts to lose it:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 3.38.39 PM.png

In PART IV, I will explore some of the changes and alterations made because of the rehearsal process.


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. 





4 responses

  1. Joe Vincent

    Lovely post by a lovely and loving actor.

    February 28, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    • Greg Thornton

      John, may I say what a gift you give us with this exploration.You dig into the text with potent insight,and then open it up so beautifully onstage.
      Greg Thornton

      February 29, 2016 at 9:48 pm

  2. Greg Thornton

    John, may I say what a gift you give us with this exploration of this production. You bring us such fine insight and then, open it up so beautifully onstage.Corragio…Greg Thornton

    February 29, 2016 at 9:45 pm

  3. Dave Hitz

    Thank you John! I love hearing what this process feels like from the inside.

    March 8, 2016 at 8:40 pm

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