It is eight in the morning and the sun is shining on Central Park. Under lush green trees, New York’s joggers are out in force, some with personal trainers, others pushing buggies or chasing dogs.
A man dressed in dark jeans and a black shirt and tie sits slumped under a large rock overhanging a path. He has a length of rope coiled in his fists and appears to be talking to himself. “But ’tis my heart ... ” he mutters, with a brooding look. “Cut!” shouts a tall man from the other side of the path; near him are two others, one behind a camera mounted on a tripod and one holding a long boom. The joggers are momentarily intrigued, slowing down as they pass.
Following a brief discussion, the tall man (director Brendan Averett) calls “Action!” and the brooding man (actor Carlo Alban) begins again. “But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise, / Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.”
At this point, he jumps up and starts climbing the rock, still speaking the lines of Shakespeare’s tortured Sonnet 141. Once at the top, he sits astride a statue of a crouching panther (Edward Kemeys’ “Still Hunt”), angrily wrapping the rope around its bronze neck. “Cut!” comes the instruction from below; “I said purposeful, not frenetic!” Alban scrambles down the rock for another take.
Alban and Averett are participants in the Sonnet Project, recently launched by young theatre company the New York Shakespeare Exchange (NYSE). Its aim is to turn Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets into as many short films – each shot in a different New York location with a different actor, director and camera crew. They will then be released online over the course of a year, one every few days, until the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth next April.
The project was crowdfunded through Kickstarter and most of the money raised was spent building a website and free mobile app (the actors, directors and camera crews are working pro bono). The hope is that people around the world will watch the films and that New Yorkers will use the app to find the locations of the films, watch them in situ and learn about the poems and places.
The Sonnet Project will also make use of mobile technology and social media in a series of IRL (“in real life”) events. In the pipeline are sonnet readings (“we could send out a notification to anyone within a two-mile radius of a certain bar and say, ‘Come and hear a couple of sonnets and have a drink with us’,” enthuses NYSE artistic director Ross Williams). There are also plans for sonnet “scavenger hunts”, in which people can use their smartphones to scan quick response (QR) codes around the city for clues leading to film locations or live “happenings”.
“New York’s love letter to Shakespeare” is how Cristina Lundy, NYSE’s associate artistic director, describes the Sonnet Project. She hopes the poetry will provide a new perspective on the city’s overlooked corners, explaining: “There’s the New York that people who have never been here in their lives see in movies, and there’s the New York that people who have lived here all their lives have never seen.”
One of the participating film-makers made a list of 200 potential locations and Williams went through it “looking for which ones had cinematic value, and making sure we were representing all of the boroughs and that they each had an interesting story to tell.
“I dissected them by theme and imagery and said, ‘Well, this sonnet has legal jargon, so which location seems to match? And this one is about departing on a voyage so maybe we can look at a wharf.’ ”
The Sonnet Project was launched last week at the stunning Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, with a screening of 12 films. Of these, the best were the ones with the most successful pairing of poem and place.
Sonnet 152, for instance, was filmed on a long “step street” in the Bronx – a winding staircase echoing the poem’s tight logic and the low, wintry light reflecting its sense of hopelessness: “For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee,/ And all my honest faith in thee is lost.”
The films vary greatly in style, from shaky handheld camerawork to slick computer-generated effects – unsurprising since each has its own director and distinct vision.
In a sense, Shakespeare’s sonnets are as dramatic as his plays in that they are all addressed to someone. The plays are littered with sonnets, such as the lovely “Palmer’s Sonnet” that Romeo and Juliet share when they first meet, taking alternate lines.
And yet, because the sonnets are rarely performed, the majority are unknown even to well-educated theatre-going types – “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” being a notable exception. So it is ironic that NYSE, whose mission Williams says is “to get people to love Shakespeare”, should choose some of the Bard’s least-known work.
Williams’ desire to reach a mass audience was frustrated by the limitations of being a small company (productions usually have 16 performances in a 99-seat house). “So we thought, ‘how can we take theatre to people instead of getting people in front of theatre?’ We realised plays would be too much for people to watch online, but a two-minute film could work – so the sonnets seemed a good fit.” The company’s goal is to get 1m people to download the app over the year.
“I’m adamant about maintaining the integrity of the language: it should still feel like Shakespeare,” Williams says. “But I want to look at it through a contemporary lens and ask, ‘How does this connect to me today?’ ”.
This is a big question facing theatre-makers all over the world. One answer has simply been to hijack the popular medium of cinema – indeed, live broadcasts to cinema screens from London’s National Theatre and New York’s Metropolitan Opera have enjoyed widespread success in the UK.
Streaming at home is another, newer approach, with London’s Hampstead Theatre recently live-streaming a performance of #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. The Royal Shakespeare Company is taking a more participatory tack with its “one-off digital theatre project” Midsummer Night’s Dreaming. Watching the show online, people are encouraged to respond on social media using the hashtag #dream40 as it plays over three days from midsummer’s day (June 21), culminating in an open invitation wedding in Stratford-upon-Avon.
But NYSE’s argument is that Shakespeare’s sonnets are even better suited to the screen – and the mobile viewing experience. “Part of what makes a sonnet work can be very similar to what makes a short film work,” Lundy tells me: “it’s the limitations of structure and length”. A Shakespearean sonnet is typically 14 lines in iambic pentameter: three quatrains and a final couplet. “It’s the possibilities that can be found when you limit yourself to specific rules and see how far you can stretch those rules.”