Immediately after the whirlwind of Professionals Week, I started rehearsals for what may be one of my biggest directing challenges to date. I’m in the final year of a fellowship for young Hispanic directors at Repertorio Español, a NYC theatre dedicated to producing Spanish-language work. When I directed my first show there a year ago, it was my first time ever directing in Spanish (a language that was technically at one point my first but I think it’s now fair to say it’s a distant second). Last year I was charged with directing a contemporary play, making the language easier to work with. This year, however, I had to pick a 17th Century play from Spain’s Golden Age. My first thought was, “I’ve never directed Shakespeare in English…how can I possibly direct Shakespeare in Spanish?!”
It’d been a long time since I‘d worked on a classical verse play, and knowing that on top of that it would be in classical Spanish was intimidating. On the other hand, I was excited to approach a piece from a purely directorial perspective and to experiment with form and aesthetics with more freedom than one normally gets when developing a brand new play. In the last few years my tastes have veered towards more large-scale work with music and dance elements, and before this summer I hadn’t had a chance to really try my own hand at it. This was the perfect opportunity.
I dug up the first-ever Spanish “zarzuela”, EL LAUREL DE APOLO (“Apollo’s Laurel”), written in 1657 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. A zarzuela is a form of operetta that was influenced by Italian opera but isn’t sung all the way through; instead, it has spoken dialogue scenes and musical numbers, much like our idea of a musical today. The music at that time was a mix of baroque and popular songs that made zarzuelas appealing to a wide audience.
I'd never worked on a musical and had been wanting to for a while. I decided to work with a composer on a brand new score because, well, aside from the fact that the original music is lost and I had no choice, it felt important to update the music and the energy of the show to something more contemporary, in keeping with the idea that zarzuelas were intended to be accessible events with popular music that most people could enjoy.
The first time I read the play back in November, it took me about six hours to get through, and I only half-understood what was being said at any given point. After running it by several completely fluent Spanish speakers, including some actors who have specialized in this kind of work, I realized that the language is difficult to understand even for the experts. Calderón makes you work for it; his complicated sentence structure often makes it nearly impossible to figure out who or what the object of the sentence is (especially when the sentence is half a page long and includes several tangents filled with imagery and metaphors). To make things more difficult, this is a very-little known play and I have not been able to find evidence of any productions after the original was performed at the Spanish court. In other words, there was no existing English translation to help me through.
Another text challenge I didn’t anticipate was finding out that this, in fact, was not even close to “Shakespeare in Spanish.” The meter of Spanish verse is actually quite different from Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. I spent a few sessions going over this with a classically-trained actor from Madrid. He taught me that, for example, an octosyllable line has the accents on the first, fourth, and seventh syllables, making the rhythm TA-da-da-TA-da-da-TA-da instead of what our English ear is used to: ta-DA-ta-DA-ta-DA-ta-DA-ta-DA. This is certainly a challenge for many of the actors in my cast, most of whom have done Shakespeare in English or Spanish and are having to re-calibrate their sense for it.
Six months later, I am happy to say I am now armed with a deep understanding of the script (and still incredulous and proud that my Spanish skills got me this far!). I am excited to finally be in the rehearsal room, headfirst in a production of "firsts": first classical Spanish play, first musical, first time working with a choreographer, first time working with live music...and on and on. With this amazing group of actors (in the photo above at our first music rehearsal), we are continuing to discover even more new things about the text every day. We also have an incredible creative team of designers, a composer, and a choreographer. None of them really speak Spanish, and explaining the script to each of them in detail has given me an even greater understanding of the story each time. More on our rehearsal process soon...