Arranged by: Emily Stone
Directed by: Antonio Disla
Music performed by: Rick Heckendorn
NYU Libraries (virtual) - 2022
Midsummer Sueño (2022)
In the summer of 2022, I assembled a workshop of roughly ten volunteers to meet weekly over Zoom with the open-ended goal of reading and discussing Shakespeare in English and Spanish. My three-fold inspiration was Theater of War’s outreach to invite front-line healthcare workers to perform Greek tragedies online for a grateful public, The Show Must Go Online’s herculean effort to stage one Shakespeare play a week with an inclusive cast entirely on Zoom, and the Public Theater’s ingenious “staging” of a bilingual Romeo y Julieta as a radio play for anyone to hear at home amidst the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group was organically diverse, including a retired teacher from New York who was learning Spanish and new to acting, a recent drama-school graduate from Madrid, classically-trained Shakespearean actors with Latinx backgrounds but limited experience performing in Spanish, and a comedian from Argentina living in London and newly curious about Shakespeare, all of us outsiders as much as we were insiders to the text(s) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Sueño de una noche de verano in unique ways.
I had expected to use an existing bilingual version of the play that been arranged by workshop member Megan Owens (with Susan Schulman) for a project called Shakespeare in the Parque in the early 2000s. But that adaptation that had been ahead of its time twenty years ago now presented some obstacles—I couldn’t easily identify the translation of the text the Spanish portions of the script were taken from or whether that version was in the public domain; and for several of the Latinx members of our group for whom the promise of this project lay in representation and social justice, that Castilian translation simply didn’t speak to the contemporary moment.
We had another option in a new translation by Alejandro Menéndez (who was also in the group) and Isabel Genis. It was remarkably accessible artistically—their reasons for doing the translation in the first place was the bring the joy and lightness that they had found in Shakespeare to local audiences of young people in Spain—but as another instance of peninsular Spanish it had the potential to further alienate marginalized Spanish-speaking communities in the US. Further, Menéndez and Genis were in step with a long-standing tradition in their country to render Shakespeare not in iambic pentameter or Golden-Age versification, but in prose. Yet a bilingual version in which speakers of one language use elaborate metrical patterns and speakers of the other do not would be out of balance. Consequently, we opened our weekly meetings to several different versions of Sueño, from Spain and from Latin America, in poetry and in prose, which ultimately provided the conceit for an entirely new script.
Since the story presents the different realms of the court and woods, and since different registers of poetry and prose overlap in all Shakespeare plays, why not use different translations to voice different components of the play? Spanish became the primary language of the fictional setting Atenas (Shakespeare’s play is set in Athens), with the staid dialogue of an old-timey Spanish edition of the script comprising the language of Teseo and his royal household (an apt application of 18th and 19th-century translations that are neither from our own time nor from Shakespeare’s), contrasted by the lovers using the intimacy and playfulness of our contemporary edition from Spain when out of earshot of the older generation.
The forest then became a world apart from this “Spanish” “kingdom,” vocalized in translations drawn from Latin America. A verse translation by the Chilean poets Manuel Sánchez and Luis Villalobos, to which we were lucky to get the rights, was the perfect choice to breathe life into this production’s Spanish-speaking yet unknowable fairy creatures. That left the artisan actors, commonly referred to as the “Mechanicals”. A first and worst choice in a bilingual US-based production might have been to make them the butt of jokes because they are Spanish speakers, so I flipped the script and cast Bottom and Flute as “gringos” who make mistakes trying to speak the Spanish of the court. I did this by rewriting lines to combine a contemporary translation from Mexico with versions of the English malapropisms in the original script.
Having established Spanish as the language of Atenas, we then had to justify characters speaking English. Hippolyta’s status as a war bride was the most obvious starting place. And a couple of happy accidents helped complete the conceit. First, the actor who was going to play Helena got another job so I stepped in. Though I am a non-native Spanish-speaker without a Castilian accent, I decided that Shakespeare’s repeated references to the character as “old Nedar’s daughter,” and therefore an outsider among Athens’ aristocrats, could explain the casting choice. And then on a lark I invited a group member who was also a musician to write something for one of the fairy songs; that performance absolutely blew us away and opened up a creative avenue to have a character who could be the MC for the entire play—always on stage, playing background music, and joining in at court (as Philostrate, the master of revels) and as an attendant to Titania, a kind of all-knowing perpetual outsider. And with three characters in the Spanish-speaking world of the play who were established English-speakers, we also had a reason for the other bilingual characters and their actors to move into and out of Shakespeare’s original text, whenever they wanted to address (or be overheard by) those outsider characters.
Following the summer workshop, the NYU Libraries hosted a virtual staged reading of the Midsummer Sueño directed by Antonio Disla in September 2022. The participants were Cesar Carrasco, Debbie Frascino, Rick Heckendorn, Alejandro Menéndez, Megan Owens, Arelys Rosado-Gonzalez, Pedro J. Rosados, Jr., Jeanette Sarmiento, and Emily Stone. Any theater-makers interested in learning more about or potentially working with the Midsummer Sueño script across linguistic, cultural, geographic, and other divides are enthusiastically invited to contact me at emily [dot] stone [at] nyu [dot] edu.