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by Hannah J. Hessel, Audience Enrichment Manager
One doesn’t expect to hear contemporary idioms in an 18th century French farce. Unexpected though it may be, this will be what greets audiences at David Ives’ adaptation of The Heir Apparent.
Students attending productions during the SHAKESPEARIENCE matinees may be surprised to find that a play can exist in both the past and present. When working on an older play, Ives knows that his job is to bring his creative voice and meld it with the original. He explains, “I have a voice and it will be there whether I like it or not.” His goal is then to discover what the originating playwright is after, “what’s underneath the language.” Through his process he is able to blend the traditional elements of classical theatre with modern cultural touchstones, allowing audiences of all ages to connect with work that at first may feel distant.
Children and adults alike can get a little nervous when they are confronted with verse. Contemporary plays are rarely poetically written and few poems make it into an English curriculum. When we first encounter a play in verse it sounds foreign. David Ives approached Regnard’s rhymed text by transforming it into vernacular verse, making it more accessible. On stage, artists find moments that resonate with their audiences. For STC Teaching Artists, the key is to help the students uncover the commonalities between our society and the worlds presented to them on the page. Teaching Artists accomplish this in a myriad of ways: creating bridges from the world of pop music, allowing the students to recognize archetypal characters and familiar storylines.
As Resident Teaching Artist Jim Gagne explains, students are familiar with verse; they just know it as lyrics. When explaining iambic pentameter to middle school students, he pulls on lyrics from one of his favorite poets: Grammy award-winning rapper Eminem. Using the line, “and right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe” from the song “I Love the Way You Lie,” Gagne is able to show how words get emphasized within a rhythmic structure. Teaching Artist Casey Kaleba uses Katy Perry lyrics to accomplish the same goal. Once the students can recognize how a familiar lyric can be broken down into accented and unaccented syllables, it becomes easier for them to deal with a line of text. Gagne finds that once the connection is made, they start to understand how to read the play before them.
For all Teaching Artists, the goal of using contemporary references is to allow the students to build deep connections to the classical texts. Gagne explains that the sooner you make the work relatable the better, and once they are able to connect, “they can experience the beauty of the language.” Ives has likewise embraced contemporary references. He found Regnard’s play to be a “constantly tumbling knockabout action” with “characters who would do anything or go anywhere for a joke.” His adaptation does more than translate—it provides the same knockabout comedy that resonates with audiences here and now.
In every production, audiences can connect to timeless classical works by building bridges between the past and the present. When students see The Heir Apparent this fall, they will find in front of them a world at once familiar and distant. This is Ives’ goal: “We call these things plays because they must be played, which means they must be playable. My allegiance as a playwright is to the actors who have to say the lines, not to the history of dramatic literature. Theatre is a living art and my job as playwright or as adaptor or translator is always the same: make it live today.”