Shakespeare Reimagined: Interview with Alexander Parker

In this blog, I have addressed the benefits of teaching children persistence, dedication, and tenacity in an educational setting, especially for students who struggle to read. Today’s blog is especially relevant: what if there were a topic/writer who immediately conjured up an image of being difficult to understand? Or more difficult to read than other writers? Or one so old as to seem irrelevant? How engaged could you expect students to be in reading and understanding material like this? The answer: not much.

What comes to mind when you hear the name Shakespeare? For some, favorite passages trip off the tongue in pithy, poetic quotes, for others, (likely the majority) the feeling is little short of dread, especially if you’re a high school student facing ‘required’ reading. If you fall into the latter category, as I once did, then this blog interview is especially for you because now there is a better, more user-friendly way to experience Shakespeare!

medium shakespeare

I’d like to introduce you to Alexander Parker, CEO/Publisher of The New Book Press . Alexander has reimagined Shakespeare so that actors work before a white background right beside the written text to bring hard-to-understand works to life. Most students are required to have some Shakespeare, and many either find it completely intimidating (guilty as charged) or are stymied by its language, frequent references to obscure cultural issues of the past, and mythology.

However, the fact remains that these stories and characters are ageless and just as timely for modern generations as they were four hundred years ago. The stories just need a little user-interface lift for today’s generation, and that’s where Alexander Parker comes in. Alexander has kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog about his process in making Shakespeare accessible to this generation.

Don: Hello Alexander, thank you so much for sharing your work with our readers! What was your first experience of reading Shakespeare like? Was it love at first read, or was it difficult in the beginning?

Alexander: Shakespeare did not come at all easily to me when I first read Romeo and Juliet at the age of 13. The writing seemed impenetrable, and the “genius” of Shakespeare’s style was totally lost on me. But it was required, and so I grimly slogged through the text, and learned by rote all the things that are taught to this day—the powerful imagery, the difference between Romeo’s language before and after he meets Juliet, the details of iambic pentameter, and so on. We also were allowed to watch (as a great treat) Zeffirelli’s 1968 film of the play (which in my view stands the test of time very well!) By the way, we watched it crowded around a 15” TV, which was hooked up to a VHS tape machine!

iPad graphic for Macbeth

Don: How did the WordPlay Shakespeare Series come about?

Alexander: While working at Harvard University, I became interested in the history and evolution of books, and the way various things that we take for granted in books—page numbers, indexes, embedded graphics and images, different book sizes—even paper, ink, and bound-at-the-spine pages—actually evolved over many hundreds of years. I began to wonder how books might evolve in the future, and with the emergence of devices like the Kindle and the iPad, I felt this was a great time to experiment with new forms of books, specifically, ones that contained movement and sound in the pages. The question was what to try, and that’s when I had the idea to try and put a performance of a play “on the page,” next to the text. Because Shakespeare is still required reading, and the text can be difficult, I decided to start with his plays.

Don: How does bringing text and film together on the same page help struggling readers?

Alexander: Most Shakespeare teachers will tell you that reading Shakespeare is a slightly unnatural activity, because Shakespeare never intended for his plays to be read. They were written to be seen heard, and experienced. This goes to the heart of why Shakespeare is so hard to understand—we are reading 450-year-old English, and we are reading it without any of the visual cues and clues that one would normally have when watching a performance. By that, I mean things like intonation, inflection, silences, glances, body languages, direction of speech, entrances and exits, and all manner of movements on the stage which would immediately clarify much of the text. At the end of the day, when you read a Shakespeare play, you are reading a script, and since not all of us are professional actors, what we’re reading is really the “code” for the play. As an analogy, imagine claiming that reading the recipe for a dish was as good as eating the dish itself! Or that, for most of us, reading the sheet music would allow us to appreciate the music. Like the text of plays, recipes and sheet music are just instructions.

iPad grapic for Midsummer Nights Dream

Don: What is something about Shakespeare that most people would be surprised to learn?

Alexander: A lot of energy has been spent pursuing various sensational claims about William Shakespeare—for instance that Shakespeare “wasn’t Shakespeare” (that it was in fact a pen name for the Earl of Oxford), or that he was a secret Catholic (a dangerous thing to be in Protestant Elizabethan England), and so on. Those are all enjoyable things to speculate about. But I think some of the subtler things are also more interesting. We’ve been lucky, when making the WordPlay eBook series, to consult with Yale University Professor David Scott Kastan, and a couple of things David mentioned have stuck with me. He said that Shakespeare was of course an extraordinarily good writer, but he was also, in all likelihood, an incredibly good listener. He seemed to be a magnet for the telling phrase or word, and when people say he invented some 1,300 new words it’s highly unlikely he invented them all—but he did hear many of them, and committed them to paper for the first time. The other thing that might surprise people, is that Shakespeare was probably not the most popular, or even the second most popular playwright of his time, that honor probably going to the writing team of Beaumont & Fletcher, and Ben Johnson, respectively.
Don: In your estimation, what seems to make Shakespeare most inaccessible to readers?

Alexander: I think it’s a combination of two or three things, two of which I have already mentioned; the 450-year-old language, which though tantalizingly similar to what we use today, is also sufficiently different that it can hang us up, and often breaks the flow that we are used to when reading text; and the fact that in reading the text, we are not able to see all the context that actors would add to make clear what is going on.

Two others that come to mind are first, cultural references that an audience in the 17th Century would have immediately understood, but that we in the 21st Century would have no clue about, and second, the fact that some words that mean one thing to us today, often meant something different back then. For instance, the verb “to let,” today means “to permit, or allow.” However, back in the 17th Century, it meant almost the exact opposite, namely “to hinder, or get in the way of.” These sorts of differences, though seemingly no big deal alone, when added together, make for tough reading, and significant barriers to understanding.

Don: Do you offer a modern translation of the plays?

Alexander: Yes, we do—in fact, starting in the fall of 2016, we will offer at least four different translations of each play, and teachers will be able to select which one works best for themselves and their students—a version which is “lightly simplified” (that is, we change as few words as possible, which works best for stronger students), a version which is more heavily simplified, to make even clearer what is meant, a modern Spanish translation, and then, in a slightly different approach, a version which will have a page by page summary of the text, so that students can get a page by page gist of what the original is saying.

Don: Is there a synopsis of each scene available?

Alexander: Yes—in fact it was the popularity of the scene by scene synopses that led us to expand into doing the page by page summaries. At some level, it is less controversial than trying to mimic and simplify the language, and some students react very well to this sort of support.

iPad graphic for Romeo and Juliet

Don: What sort of feedback are you receiving from early adopters of your technology?

Alexander: Responses from teachers and students alike have been very favorable. In a way, what I like more though, is the criticisms (well, sort of like! It’s the criticisms that help us improve the edition every year). On the positive side, we hear all the things we hoped to hear— WordPlay eBooks are easier to understand, more enjoyable to read and experience, leading to more detailed and interesting discussions about the themes, motifs, grammatical structures and vocabulary, and so on. Of the questions we receive, the interesting ones are things like “why do the actors wear modern clothes?” and “why is there so little scenery,” and “why do all the actors play at least two roles?” All these questions are legitimate, and also offer great teachable moments, to discuss staging, directing, interpretation and so on.

On the technology front, what we have learned is that a school does not have to have a 1:1 program, or even that many computers around, since—and we were really blown away by this detail—in a study performed by the University of Houston with one of the districts we were working with, we discovered that substantial numbers of students were using their own smart phones to read and view the plays. Just amazing, and incredibly exciting too!

Don: What’s next for The New Book Press?

Alexander: Well, right now we’re just working with schools, teachers, and students to get it into their curricula, and improve the pedagogical techniques around these eBooks. Once we have established a larger base, we will start production on our next play—Julius Caesar.

Don: Where can readers find out more?

Alexander: We are on the web at http://thenewbookpress.com/TNBP/Home.html and the best way to stay in touch with what’s coming next is to subscribe to our newsletter/mailing list, which you can find on our website. If you are a teacher and want a free demonstration license, just email us at info@thenewbookpress.com, and we’ll set you up with one of the plays.

For people who have iPads or Macs, the eBooks are also in “iBook” format. They run $20.00 each, which is more than the streaming version for schools, but some folks may be interested in purchasing.

Here are the links for the three:

Don: Thank you so much for spending some time with our readers. I am so excited about this project, and what it will mean for readers everywhere!

Whether you are a teacher, student, or an adult who would love to be able to enjoy Shakespeare fully, please check out this wonderful, enriching educational tool.