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Shakespeare? There's an App for That

  • Ashley Milne-Tyte

Ron Cohen (right) and fellow actor Mike Spence (left) record one of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a New York bar. (Ashley Milne-Tyte for VOA)
Ross Williams is passionate about Shakespeare. He studied acting and directing and is the founder of a theater company called the New York Shakespeare Exchange. But he’s well aware that many people don’t share his enthusiasm.

Four hundred-year-old English is tough to decipher, he says, and many think of Shakespeare as dusty and dull.

“I started thinking about how I could deliver Shakespeare to people in small chunks, things that would be manageable and get people to experience Shakespeare in their day-to-day lives without having to make the commitment to go see a full show," Williams said. "And so we started with the sonnets because they’re contained.”

He and his colleagues founded The Sonnet Project as part of their theater company. The idea is to film each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, which are 14-line poems, and release each one before the bard’s birthday next April.

This is Shakespeare for the tech savvy. You can watch the films on the Sonnet Project’s website, or download the app to your phone and get regular sonnet deliveries. Each piece is filmed in a different location in New York City.

Today, a crew is shooting sonnet 3 in a Brooklyn bar. The establishment is decades old, with a dark wood floor and a heavy, old-fashioned cash register against one wall. In this sonnet, an older man urges a young one to find someone to bear his child, so that his good looks are replicated and he does not die without heirs.

Actor Ron Cohen performs the verse. He plays a seasoned barman encouraging a young male customer to check out two girls at the end of the bar, lest he miss his chance to reproduce.

“...For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb disdains the tillage of thy husbandry? Or who is he so fond will be the tomb of his self-love to stop posterity...”

The sonnet ends with the words, "Die single, and thine image dies with thee." After that, the white-haired barman tosses back a shot of liquor and seems to contemplate his own life.

Updating Shakespeare for a modern audience includes using an iPad slate at the start of each take. (Ashley Milne-Tyte for VOA)
Updating Shakespeare for a modern audience includes using an iPad slate at the start of each take. (Ashley Milne-Tyte for VOA)
Cohen has acted in Shakespeare plays from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to "Othello." He’s intrigued by the idea of delivering Shakespeare in short bursts.

“Fantastic," he said. "Great idea,especially the idea of doing it in different locales in New York, tying in the contemporary feeling of Shakespeare.”

Today’s locale, Sunny’s Bar, has been at this spot for 150 years. But the bar was badly flooded when Hurricane Sandy swept through New York last year. It’s looking to renew itself, just as the old barman hopes his young customer will renew himself by having a child.

To complete a project this big requires the talents of many artists, so Williams put out a call to filmmakers on the Sonnet Project’s website and by word of mouth. Noemi Charlotte Thieves, 25, was one of many who signed up. He directed sonnet 71 a few months ago. He was not a Shakespeare fan at school and when he came to The Sonnet Project, his knowledge was pretty sketchy.

“I thought sonnets were like monologues or soliloquies from his plays," Thieves said. "I totally had no idea what they were, so I was completely naïve and ignorant to the whole thing. So I was like, 'Oh, sonnet, okay, cool, whatever.' And then I read it and I was like, 'Ah, okay, I can do something with this.'”

What he remembered when he started studying the sonnet in question was how visual Shakespeare’s language is. Thieves compares the playwright to a famous contemporary filmmaker.

“When you’re talking about what makes his language so unique, he was in a lot of ways like [Quentin] Tarantino is today. I always say if Shakespeare was an artist living today he wouldn’t be a playwright, he would be a screenwriter, he would be a filmmaker.”

Ross Williams, founder of the Sonnet Project, agrees. He wants people to see Shakespeare as part of pop culture, which, he says, the playwright was in his day. He hopes the films will help dispel some of Shakespeare’s mystique.

“It is a little tricky sometimes but it’s still words, telling a story, and sharing emotion,” he said.

Even if instead of coming from a stage, that emotion is emanating from the tiny screen on your phone.