BWW Interviews: Kate Pogue and Luke Fedell Talk Original Pronunciation JULIUS CAESAR
Friends, Houstonians, and theatre fans, lend me your eyes. Back by popular demand, University of Houston-Downtown is remounting last year's original pronunciation staging of William Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR. In addition to offering Houstonians a glimpse into what English sounded like during the Elizabethan era, this production will also be traveling to the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe festival this August. Recently, I got to speak with Kate Pogue and Luke Fedell about this novel experiment in language.
BWW: What does it mean for a theatre company to perform a William Shakespeare play with original pronunciation?
Kate Pogue: It means that you take the text that Shakespeare wrote, just as it, and you try and figure out how it sounded to his ear and to the Elizabethan audience he was playing for 400 years ago. Language changes, as everybody knows, from year to year and generation to generation, and the pronunciation of English has changed rather dramatically since Shakespeare was writing. So, it's revelatory to see and hear what sounds were in his ear when he was creating these miraculous works.
BWW: What does it mean for the audience?
Kat Pogue: The audience will hear the play, and, actually, they'll understand it quite well. That seems to surprise people a lot. They think if we go back 400 years, we won't understand the language. Actually, I think audiences understand it quite well because it's very dramatic. It fulfills the dramatic intention of the line more fully than the modern accent does, but they'll hear an accent that they can't quite place. They'll think, "Oh, that sounds a little bit Irish," or "It sounds a little bit West Virginia," or "It sounds a little bit North England." There are elements of all of those accents in it, so it will be an interesting sound and one that carries the action of the play particularly well.
Luke Fedell: Also, it offers a new way to look at these plays that audiences haven't seen before. We're always looking for the next sort of spin we're going to do on a Shakespeare play. We think about what sort of concept are we going to do next. It's funny that we kind of went back to the original to give us something totally new that audiences haven't heard before.
BWW: Renowned Shakespearean Linguist Ben Crystal is working one-on-one with University of Houston-Downtown students to prepare them for this production. What is that experience like?
Kate Pogue: The experience working with Ben Crystal is fantastic because, first of all, Ben Crystal and his father, David Crystal, are the current gurus of this field. They are the ones who have explored it most deeply, both historically, research wise and creatively as actors and performers. So, Ben, for instance, last year did the first HAMLET that has ever been done in modern times in original pronunciation and brings with him that experience. So, to see him ask an actor to read through a speech and then word by word explain to the actor how that sound is to be adjusted for the Elizabethan pronunciation is revelatory because you start hearing things in the language that you didn't know were there.
BWW: When programming an original pronunciation production, why choose JULIUS CAESAR?
Kate Pogue: Well, in fact, it was sort of JULIUS CAESAR that chose us. Luke Fedell, the actor playing Mark Antony, came to me one day because we have done a lot of Shakespeare work together, and he said, "Kate, I'm really interested in working on Mark Antony," which is a wonderful role for him, actually. I said, "Luke, I'm really interested in working on original pronunciation." Out of that conversation, the idea for this production grew.
Luke Fedell: Since we were going to do an original pronunciation, which is something new that audiences haven't seen before, we wanted to use a play that was sort of well known for audiences. It wasn't just a lesser-known Shakespeare show; it was one of the more popular shows. People know the story of JULIUS CAESAR. They see that, and they know "Et tu, Brute?" They know things like that. We wanted to use this piece so that we're not going too far away from audiences' comfort zones. If audiences are worried about trying to understand the play, at least they know the backbone of the play. We didn't want to scare them away with this whole new realm of what we're trying to do.
BWW: This experiment in language is not something many audiences get to experience. What was the impetus for doing this type of production in Houston?
Kate Pogue: Partly that no one else has done it, and it seemed a worthwhile thing since they were doing it at The Globe in London. It was validated by these wonderful professional actors elsewhere doing this experiment. So, we felt it would be interesting to have somebody do it in Houston, and nobody else seemed interested in doing it but us. We were excited to bring this development in Shakespeare studies to this particular community.
BWW: What do you hope Houston audiences take away from this JULIUS CAESAR?
Luke Fedell: I'm hoping that people will understand, especially with the original pronunciation, how more earthy Shakespeare was; how much more grounded the original pronunciation was. When you're speaking this language, you really do feel that earthiness that was so prevalent in 16th century England. You get that sort of feel, that dirty, sort of gravely feel of performing at the Globe, where earlier in the day they would have been doing bear baiting and blood and guts would be on the floor, and later that night they would be doing a play. It's not so far away from that. You still have this very gritty, earthy vibe. As Shakespeare has moved into the modern pronunciation it's gotten a lot more proper and more refined. What we're learning from this original pronunciation is how earthy, gritty, and grounded the language was back then. We feel we are actually getting that more deeply rooted, grounded sound that the English language had back in the 16th century.
Kate Pogue: I think, too, that you want audiences to come into the theatre and then go away thinking that they've had a terrific experience: dramatic, exciting, fast-moving, focused, and extraordinarily expressive. That's what I'm hoping they'll feel when they see this JULIUS CAESAR.
BWW: What's next for JULIUS CAESAR after its limited run in Houston?
Luke Fedell: We did this production last year, and we're remounting it because we're actually going to take this to the Edinburg Fringe festival in August. We've been working all year and raising money all year for that. We currently have a Kickstarter Campaign to help fund the trip. Now, we're getting our production ready so we can take our alumni, students, and faculty to the festival in August.
Kate Pogue: Nobody from Houston has done this before, so that's kind of exciting.
Be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign's video promo below:
You can easily support University of Houston-Downtown's original pronunciation production of William Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR by attending a performance at University of Houston-Downtown's O'Kane Theatre at 1 Main Street, Houston, 77002. Performances are May 1, 2, 3 at 8:00 p.m. and May 4 at 3:00 p.m. Also, feel free to visit their Kickstarter campaign page by clicking here.