Bag&Baggage Productions, Hillsboro’s resident professional theatre company, has received a major grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust to fund the first three years of an innovative play commissioning project called The Problem Play Project. The funds will be used to commission an emerging Oregon playwright of color to adapt one of Shakespeare’s problem plays through a diversity and equity lens. The focus of The Problem Play Project is to create new, world premiere adaptations of that small group of Shakespearean plays considered by scholars to be neither comedies nor tragedies, adapted by local playwrights with an interest in exploring themes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“As has been true for the past 12 years, Bag&Baggage is turning to the classics as a way of addressing two very specific challenges for the company,” said Scott Palmer, Founding Artistic Director of Bag&Baggage and creator of The Problem Play Project. “First, how do we bring Shakespeare’s works to life in provocative and compelling ways for diverse audiences and, second, how do we increase diversity within our audiences and our artists.”
The company’s experience last summer with their world premiere adaptation of Romeo and Juliet combined with the 12th century Persian tale Layla and Majnun indicates that a diversity-lens approach to Shakespeare’s work can succeed both financially and in terms of attracting diverse audiences and artists.
“We truly weren’t sure that Romeo&Juliet (Layla&Majnun) would work,” said Palmer, who adapted the play for performance outdoors in Hillsboro in July of 2017. “Not only did we exceed our ticket sales targets, but we also saw increases in the number of Middle Eastern, and specifically Iranian/Persian-American audience members who attended. The play did exactly what we had hoped it would. ”
The Problem Play Project will provide a $10,000 commissioning fee to an Oregon-based playwright who will select one of Shakespeare’s problem plays as the basis of a major new adaptation. Interested playwrights will submit a proposal, including their chosen Shakespearean title along with an overview of how they might approach the adaptation process, which will be reviewed by B&B staff and a volunteer panel of theatre experts and representatives of diverse communities throughout Washington County.
“Adaptation means a lot of things,” said Palmer. “It might mean incorporating original source materials, rewriting Shakespeare’s language, modernizing the language, incorporating other literature from different writers, or a thousand other adaptive approaches; it all depends on the playwright and their interest. For example, a playwright of Japanese descent might approach Measure For Measure as a vehicle for exploring Oregon’s history with Japanese internment camps, given the play’s focus on unjust imprisonment as one of the themes. How the playwright does so is a huge part of the commissioning and workshopping process.”
Among the titles defined as Shakespearean problem plays are Measure For Measure, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Merchant Of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, and Timon Of Athens.
The first production of The Problem Play Project is scheduled for performance in March of 2019. Submission procedures for interested playwrights will be announced in January of 2018, with the playwright selected by March of the same year, giving the successful applicant 12 months to complete the work.
In addition to the commissioning fee, the Meyer Memorial Trust grant also provides B&B with funds for targeted marketing, audience research, and increased wages for actors and crew, enabling the company to offer up to six Actor’s Equity Association union contracts for the production.
“We have always struggled with attracting artists of color to perform in Hillsboro,” said Palmer. “One of the reasons for that is the travel distance and time required to rehearse and perform in the suburbs. By offering Equity union contracts, we hope to offer at least half of the roles in the production to actors of color, as well as attract more production crew and designers of color as well.”
More information on The Problem Play Project can be found on the Bag&Baggage website at bagnbaggage.org or by contacting Scott Palmer at email@example.com. More information on the award, and on the Meyer Memorial Trust, can be found at mmt.org
CURRENT PROBLEM PLAY COMMISSION:
Our inaugural Problem Play Project production is a remarkable new vision of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in a bilingual world premiere adaptation! The Bard’s spellbinding tale of jealousy, prophecy, magic, and redemption, reworked by Hillsboro-native Carlos-Zenen Trujillo, transports the action away from Sicilia and Bohemia to Miami and Havana.
Bringing Latin-American magical realism to play in one of Shakespeare’s most compelling (and magical) tales, The Island In Winter is the first show in a three-year project that asks emerging playwrights of color to re-imagine Shakespeare’s Problem Plays with a diversity and equity lens.
About Bag&Baggage Productions
Bag&Baggage (B&B) is Hillsboro, Oregon’s only professional theatre and the largest non-profit arts organization in the city. B&B’s mission is to crack open and explore the classics of world literature in new, innovative, and provocative ways, connecting these great works to contemporary audiences in surprising ways. In September of 2017, B&B took possession of their new, permanent home, The Vault Theater; a state of the art, flexible studio space in the heart of downtown Hillsboro.
About Meyer Memorial Trust
Meyer Memorial Trust (MMT) was created by the late Fred G. Meyer, founder of a chain of retail stores bearing his name throughout the Pacific Northwest. Established in 1982, Meyer has awarded roughly $700 million in grants and program-related investments to more than 3,200 organizations in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Since 2016, MMT has focused their grant-making on ensuring a more flourishing and equitable Oregon.
Why The Problem Play Project?
B&B believes great world literature from the past has something to say to modern audiences: we learn about our present and our future from explorations of our past, and our work with the classics of world literature is always meant to illuminate or explore the issues, themes, and meanings of relevance to our audiences today. As a company, we are committed to exploring new interpretations, new meanings, and unusual approaches to classical work. We want to challenge our audiences to see these plays in new ways, to reinvigorate them, to make all things old new again, and to connect the great works of world literature to the lives and beliefs of our audiences. We are a text-based company with a passion for heightened language, and believe these works can challenge, provoke, and shape conversations.
As such, B&B is turning to the classics as a way of addressing two very diﬀerent problems: how to bring Shakespeare’s non-genre-conforming works to life in a compelling way for a contemporary audience; and, in doing so, how to address our iron-clad commitment to developing a more diverse artist and audience base. Our proposed approach involves creating new, blended work that is text-based, and that reaches out to the members of our community who rarely (if ever) see themselves and their stories on stage.
We need to be 100% clear: B&B struggles with diversity and inclusion initiatives – in large part due to our suburban location in Hillsboro. Virtually all of the artists we employ live in Portland, and travel distance, costs, and time are enormous barriers for us in attracting the kind of diverse artists we hope will perform with us. Despite these obstacles, the 2017-2018 Season, which ends in May of 2018, reflects B&B's deep commitment to equity and inclusion. For example, our summer production of Romeo&Juliet (Layla&Majnun) was our way of exploring the cultural tensions and “othering” that drives Islamophobia and other hate crimes.
That production was a world premiere adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, fusing Shakespeare’s text with Nizami Ganjavi’s Layla and Majnun, the ancient Persian epic thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers.
This adaptation focused on reconciliation themes in the Muslim world, featured a multi-ethnic cast, and included significant translations of the Persian epic from Farsi into English.
Spinning Into Butter and Death and The Maiden, two shows presented later in the season, focused respectively on issues of racism and political violence.
The Problem Play Project is an expansion and deepening of our commitment to these important issues.
What Does Commissioning An Adaptation of A 'Problem Play' Mean?
Over the next three years, B&B will commission three new, world-premiere adaptations of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” by Oregon-based playwrights of color.
Scholars have long agreed: William Shakespeare wrote a number of “problem plays” – those works that cannot easily be placed within more traditional constructs of comedy, tragedy, or history. These plays, which have plagued theatre directors, audiences, and actors alike for more than 400 years, include Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure For Measure, The Winter’s Tale, Timon of Athens, and The Merchant of Venice.
We will ask our selected playwright to choose one of these works and then consider the nature of Shakespeare’s work through the lens of their own experiences, creating a new work that will allow B&B to have a multi-ethnic cast of actors and designers based on that perspective. Our hope is that, by asking artists of color to consider the works of Shakespeare from their own perspective, and with a view toward exploring issues of specific relevance to their life and community, we can break open and explore these classic works in new and innovative ways – connecting them to communities of color in equally new and innovative ways.
Of specific interest to B&B will be emerging artists from the following ethnic groups who make up the largest proportion of non-white residents of Washington County, where our company is based: Hispanic/Latino; African American; Asian American/South Asian American; American Indian (Native American); Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; and biracial.
For example, a playwright of Japanese descent might approach Shakespeare's play Measure For Measure with a view towards exploring Oregon's history with Japanese internment camps, given that one of the main themes of Measure For Measure deals with unjust imprisonment. A Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander may wish to incorporate Polynesian locations, ancient mythology, or poetry in an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale, which includes elements of magical realism and rural settings.
The approach is completely up to the selected playwright, and we have no limitations on the process; this being said, our goal is to ultimately produce work that includes the following elements:
- Heightened language
- A multi-ethnic cast
- A thematic focus on equity, social justice, inclusion, and/or diversity
- A cast of no more than 12 actors
Questions may be directed to Scott Palmer, Founding Artistic Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503 345 9590 x3.