Reimaging, Reinventing, Redefining the Classics

by Rob Melrose

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for Reimaging, Reinventing, Redefining the Classics

(Photo: Paige Rogers as Ria in Eugenie Chan’s Bone to Pick. This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

“Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended!”  So reads the headline of an admittedly funny article in The Onion.  As an Artistic Director running a theater engaged in reinterpreting the classics, the article becomes less funny the hundredth time someone forwards it to you saying, “you’re going to love this!”  I was just at the Golden Mask Festival in Moscow where I saw a very traditional production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I actually had the opposite experience from the one The Onion article describes.  I had spent the day walking around Moscow noticing that the history of Russia was present on every street: beautiful pre-revolutionary churches, big Soviet cinder-block buildings, and post-Soviet brightly colored signs for Dunkin’ Donuts and TGI Fridays.  While I watched this very conventional Three Sisters, it struck me that the characters in the play were longing to get back to Moscow while the actors and the audience were in fact already in Moscow.  Then when the characters mused about “what life would be like in one hundred years” it struck me that we now know what life would be like in one hundred years and because of people like Hitler, Stalin, Steve Jobs, and the inventor of Dunkin Donuts…those one hundred years are far beyond the balloon travel that the characters are imagining.  The post-modernist in me longed for some sort of acknowledgement of where we the audience were in time and space.  While some would argue that Moscow in 2013 is the perfect place to do Three Sisters, “the way Chekhov intended it,” and that argument makes sense, I think it is equally valid to see this as an opportunity to have the play meet the audience where they are and start a new dialogue between the play and its audience.  I guess it doesn’t help that one of the first productions of Three Sisters I ever saw was The Wooster Group’s very alive and very contemporary Brace Up.

The late (and very great) Paul Schmidt who was the translator for the Wooster Group’s version and played Chebutykin, the doctor, was my translation teacher in graduate school.  He always reminded us that “translate” means literally, “to carry across.”  He told us that our jobs were not just to put the words from one language into English, but to take the thoughts and ideas from one culture and time and to deliver them to the culture and time of the audience.  I’ve taken this to heart both as a translator and as a director.  I’m a lifelong lover of the classics and I’m often driven by a desire to share that love with people who would be put off by something that felt like a museum piece.  I often want to figure out how to invite people in.  I’m heartened by the many ways theaters across the country are opening up the classics to new audiences by reimagining them speaking to a specific community or type of contemporary experience, by reinventing new classics by commissioning playwrights to do new versions of classic stories and plays, and by redefining the canon to include plays and cultures that have been overlooked on our stages.

These ideas continue an ongoing conversation started by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s Huffington Post response to Charles McNulty’s article on literary legacies in the theater.  Perloff does an excellent job of connecting the classics to new plays.  Playmakers Artistic Director Joe Haj has also written a great article about how Shakespeare’s plays are re-explored in the rehearsal room versus how scholars reinterpret them.  There is a lot happening in the American Theater today that treats the classics as if they were new plays and it is creating some really exciting productions.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA review2(Photo Left: Paige Rogers as Ria in Eugenie Chan’s Bone to Pick. Photo Right: Melisande, Caitlyn Louchard, lets her long hair fall out of the tower down to Pelleas, Joshua Schell in Pelleas & Melisande. Photo: Annie Paladino)


It is possible that no director in America has more experience connecting classic plays to a specific community than Bill Rauch.   Now the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rauch was one of the founders of Cornerstone Theater Company, which in many ways pioneered the idea of using a classic play to explore the issues and relationships of a particular community of people.  Rauch’s recent production of Measure for Measure at OSF was an extraordinary example of this.  He used this production as an opportunity to create an ethnically specific production of Shakespeare at OSF, in this case connecting with the Latino community.  The work was incredibly specific featuring places, situations, and character types we all recognize from life.  The prison felt like a contemporary prison, ditto the law court, the government offices, the nightclubs, etc.  By making the context and the situation so crystal clear to a contemporary audience (regardless of whether or not they themselves were Latino), Rauch made this wonderful but dense Shakespearean text very easy for the audience to access.  He put Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry and thorny rhetoric into a clear context, which allowed it to resonate.  At the performance, you could feel the audience deeply engaged with the production and responding to situations they recognized.

This was also true with Mark Lamos’s production of Marlowe’s Edward II at American Conservatory Theater, which he used to explore contemporary gay culture.  The stage was full of workout equipment and showers.  The text work was exquisite and then once again, there was this rich layer of contemporary culture that gave the play an immediate connection with its audience.  I happened to be there on ACT’s “Out at A.C.T.” night – their LGBT outreach night.  The audience response was electric.  It was pretty amazing to be watching this 400-year-old play having such an immediate and visceral effect on a contemporary audience.

At Cutting Ball, we did a production that set the induction of The Taming of the Shrew on the streets of San Francisco during the Leather Fair.  This led to a production of the play within the play as an exploration of gender and identity that resonated well with our San Francisco audience.

Other theaters have done an excellent job of using a sophisticated level of design as a way of translating a play written for Shakespeare’s highly aurally literate audience to our highly visually literate audience, converting what was meant for the ear into something that communicates through the eyes.  Theater for a New Audience’s productions of Julie Taymor’s The Tempest and Titus Andronicus take metaphors from Shakespeare’s text and putting them directly into the design.  In The Tempest, Prospero says that Caliban was “deservedly confined into this rock.”  In Taymor’s production the rock is literally a part of Caliban’s head which he eventually splits open, revealing his face beneath.


(Melisande (Caitlun Louchard) and Pelleas (Joshua Schell) watch as her doves fly out of the castle’s tower in Pelleas & Melisande. Photo: Anne Paladino.)

For Cutting Ball’s production of Maeterlinck’s symbolist play Pelleas and Melisande, we were inspired by Bill Viola’s video installations and had a series of twenty translucent veils hanging above a narrow dock-like stage.  The audience sat on either side and video was projected through the veils allowing us to give an abstracted representation for the dark landscapes and mysterious caves referenced in the text.  It allowed the action on the stage to be more spare and theatrical, almost like a dance piece.  In this way technology opened up a one hundred-year old play to a contemporary audience by giving a new form to Maeterlinck’s symbolist vision, an aesthetic that both Stanislavski and Meyerhold struggled to realize.


While some theaters have connected their audiences to the classics through the vision of directors, other theaters have worked with playwrights who have taken a classic and created their own version of it.  This of course is what Shakespeare himself did with the works of Plutarch, Holinshed and Saxo-Grammaticus.

I recently saw Les Water’s production of Will Eno’s Gnit at the 2013 Humana Festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville.  This is Eno’s meditation on Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.  Meditation is probably a poor choice of words because it does not convey the fidelity, rigor, and care Eno took to parallel Ibsen’s play event for event.  Almost everything that happens in Ibsen’s play also happens in Eno’s play, and yet it all happens quite differently because it is all filtered through Eno’s unique and very contemporary voice.  It is almost as if a modern-day Peer Gynt got a hold of the play and rewrote it.  In this way it is hard to say whether this is a translation, an adaptation, or a new play.  It is of course a new play, but in many ways it is more faithful a translation of the play than a straight up translation could be.  The piece is exciting and it is interesting to note that Eno began work on the play without any commission or prompting.  He said that he had a kind of obsession with the play and needed to work it out.  It was a great example of a contemporary writer having a complex and rich relationship to a classic work, and the results were extraordinary.

While Eugenie Chan was our playwright in residence, she wrote a play for Cutting Ball treating the myth of Adriadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur called Bone to Pick.  In Chan’s version, Ariadne has been stuck on the island of Naxos for 3000 years doomed to replay the events of her role in the murder of her half-brother the Minotaur.  At this point, the Island of Naxos has become a long abandoned American army base and Aridane (now Ria) is still serving up coffee at the local diner in the desert.  Chan used a rich, colorful language full of idioms from the American West, pop culture, and military jargon.  What is exciting is that there were many audience members unfamiliar with the Ariadne myth who thoroughly enjoyed Bone to Pick as its own stand alone work and then went back to the read the original after they saw the play.


Some Artistic Directors are also starting to redefine what a classic is and are broadening their repertory to include non-western classics.  Bill Rauch boldly declared that OSF would do one non-western classic a year starting with his very first season.  Rauch has lived up to his promise with productions of The Clay Cart (India), Death and the King’s Horseman (Nigeria), Throne of Blood (Japan), and The White Snake (China).  What is exciting about this is that not only does it expose audiences to ancient stories that are probably new to them, they are likely to see forms of theater that are new to them as well.  In The Clay Cart, Rauch shared the story with his audience and also shared the vocabulary and rich tradition of Sanscrit theater.

Our recently appointed Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence, Andrew Saito, has brought the same mandate to Cutting Ball for our Hidden Classics Reading Series.  Next year Andrew will be translating a play by Brazilian playwright Qorpo Santo who is considered to be a precursor to the absurdists and his work has never been translated into English.  We will also be presenting the Mayan 500-year-old classic Rabinal Achí upon Andrew’s recommendation.  This programming will be new for us and for our audience.  The hope is that audiences will be as adventurous about “new” classics as they are about new plays.

The Challenge

Producing classics today feels like a triple challenge.  Most classic plays have large casts and are therefore expensive.  Foundations have sharply shifted their priorities to new work (with many playwrights saying “it’s about time”) and audiences are less familiar with the canon of classic works as they were thirty years ago.  Despite these obstacles, a lot of work is happening across the country that is exciting and new.  Please use the comments section below to share stories of productions of classic plays that feel fresh and new.

Rob MelroseRob Melrose is the Artistic Director and co-founder of the Cutting Ball Theater and works nationally as a freelance director. He has directed at The Guthrie Theater, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Magic Theatre, PlayMakers Rep among others. His directing credits at Cutting Ball include the World Premiere of Andrew Saito’s Krispy Kritters in The Scarlett Night, Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep, Pelleas & Melisande, and The Tempest.  His translations of Woyzeck, Ubu Roi, and Pelléas & Melisande have been published by EXIT Press. He is a recipient of the NEA / TCG Career Development Program award for directors.  He has taught at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, USF, the University of Rhode Island and Marin Academy.  He has a B.A. in English and Theater from Princeton University where he graduated magna cum laude and an M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama.

  • delphine elisabeth

    I saw that production of “Pelleas and Melisande” this was a mesmerizing experience and I was especially amazed with how prudently media, music and movement was applied in the limited space .. that along with powerful performances transferred us directly to the place and time.

  • Rob Melrose

    Thanks Delphine! I’m really glad you liked P and M. It is a longtime favorite of mine and I had been pondering for years how to realize this strange, wonderful play. It was seeing Bill Viola’s work that opened the door for me. He is just amazing and uses technology in a spare, refined way.

  • Chris Cragin-Day

    I’m interested in this subject from a writer’s perspective. I’m now working on my second adaptation of a classical text, specifically, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. I wrote about my challenges with the classical story form here:

  • Heidi Wermuth

    Very interesting blog. As an actor my first love is the classics, and while most of my exposure has been to traditionally-set productions, there is a lot to be said for an approach that modern audiences connect to and gets butts into seats that wouldn’t otherwise be there. I find that particularly the audio/visual differences you mention are significant — as an actor, I think my performance of Shakespeare would be quite different if I were living in Elizabethan times. I feel in modern day responsible for delivering archaic text so it can first be comprehended objectively by an audience that isn’t used to listening, but without sacrificing truth to character or believability, which are equally important to understanding a story. I know that is my experience as an audience member. It often feels like an impossible task!