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Inviting New Rhythms: A Conversation on Reinventing Shakespeare Through Music, Translation, and Accessibility.


Julia "Juju" Nieto speaks with Mobile Unit's THE COMEDY OF ERRORS' Rebecca Martínez (Director, Choreographer, Adapter, Lyrics) and Julián Mesri (Music & Lyrics, Adapter, Music Director, Spanish Translations) about adapting Shakespeare's comedy for a bilingual, NYC touring production.

As a former drama student, I am no stranger to Shakespeare. My relationship to him has been... complicated. Attending a predominantly white institution for dramaturgy didn’t help these feelings, often finding myself as the only Latina in rooms of white theatermakers. With barriers to theatrical education facing Latin communities, and a general indifference to an art form that the community considers “not for us,” I have spent hours in classes wondering if and how Shakespeare could be made in service of people like me, my family, and my community.   

While I never found a way to accomplish this, the brilliant Rebecca Martínez and Julián Mesri did.

This spring, throughout New York City, Martínez and Mesri will be bringing their new, bilingual adaptation of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS to all five boroughs of New York City through The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit. 

Laced with dialogue and music in both English and Spanish and inspired by musical influences from across Latin America, Martínez and Mesri have triumphed in creating a fun, fresh, and exciting reinvention of Shakespeare that would keep both me and my 90-year-old Colombian abuela thoroughly entertained. 

I was privileged enough to sit down on Zoom with the duo for a conversation about their adaptation, creative process, and what they’re most excited about when taking the show throughout the city. 

Julia “Juju” Nieto: Tell me a little bit about your careers and how you both came to work on this show!

Julián Mesri: The opportunity to work on THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, where we would be taking Shakespeare and translating him, not just in terms of some Spanish that we put in, but also in terms of the action of the story with music, seemed like a very natural combination of the work that I’ve done as a director, playwright, and sound designer. Also working with Rebecca for the umpteenth time is the best.

Rebecca Martínez: I feel I'm coming full circle to where I started in theater, which is, take some source material, come up with some music, and make a show, except this is a little bit more labor intensive. But I think there's so many elements of the same fun, experimentation, and joy. And it was all about: how do we take stuff to the community? That is in so much of the spirit of The Public’s Mobile Unit, so it's exciting to be able to keep doing work like that but in a very different way. And we're going to do Shakespeare, and we're going to tour Shakespeare that feels fun and accessible for me as a maker and an audience member.

J.J.N: This is the most fun I’ve had reading Shakespeare in years. Being able to re-approach Shakespeare through a lens that’s accessible for me as a Mexican and Colombian American has been fantastic. Which leads me to my next question—what is your relationship to Shakespeare?

J.M.: Shakespeare was one of the first playwrights I ever read. I have a very funny anecdote about Shakespeare. My mom's a theater person, and we had a little complete works of William Shakespeare, very old, in Spanish. And I was going through it at like, maybe nine or 10 years old, and I thought, "oh, this is cool!" And then my mom was like, “What are you reading? Don't read that!” She tossed me Ionesco, Beckett, and Brecht!

R.M: Shakespeare always felt inaccessible. And that's partially my own fault. I took the exact same class that my sister did in English literature in high school, and she saved all her papers, and I copied them all. I got a very good grade, but I didn't do any of the reading! But then when I started acting, I became so intimidated by Shakespeare. I felt that since I didn’t have formal training, it wasn’t something I could do. But once I started getting work as a teaching artist, part of the curriculum that we did was [A] Midsummer [Night's Dream]. I ended up teaching scenes from [A] Midsummer [Night's Dream] and directing scenes from it. It was then that I started to discover that I have to do Shakespeare out loud. I have to hear it and then I can respond and understand it.

J.J.N: What has it been like for you both in the rehearsal process hearing Shakespeare in two languages and hearing it with music? How has that shifted your understanding of the work?

R.M.: When we started talking about this piece, we thought, “music is going to be the way where we can convey information, be a vehicle for some of the language, and change perspective.” We took a lot out and we’re shifting the story because why not? But the thing that I’m listening for in English, Spanish, and with music is the meter and rhythms. COMEDY’s meter is not consistent. Our edit has made it even messier, so the iambic [pentameter] is wild, but we’re not beholden to it, which feels really freeing. It allows us to invite other rhythms in as well.

J.M.: The original intent with adding Spanish was to reflect the two states in the play, but also to reflect our city, New York, and the fact that it’s a bilingual city. In the process of translation, I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t peppered in or only lived in the contemporary, because one of the treats and challenges of Shakespeare is that people get to hear a different type of language. I wanted to find a way to make heightened language accessible to non-English speakers or native English speakers who might not be able to relate to Shakespeare in the way that someone who studied him in school would have. So, for me, one of the main touchpoints was trying to find those colloquial moments that feel real to this comedy, because this show is a comedy!

J.J.N.:  What else are you both hoping to see within the audiences and what do you think this piece means for New York City?

R.M.: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS is about family separation and what happens when two families are separated for many years because of laws and arbitrary borders that people put into place. It feels like a very connected story to many folks who have roots in Latin America. We’re using the core of COMEDY to tell a bigger story. With that, the music, the silliness, and the cultural nods we have within the language, I just hope that audiences have a good time.

J.M.: I want to second what Rebecca said. We brought music and Spanish in because we want people to have as many points of access as possible to the story and to feel like the story belongs to them. In many ways, COMEDY is an immigration story. So, we’re trying to figure out ways we can bring someone into the story, whether that be that they attach themselves to the humor in the story, the music, the Spanish, the physical comedy. We want to find ways to open the show to as many people and audiences as possible. Let's make Shakespeare something that can belong to the people. And that's something that I've always felt with Mobile Unit.

Mobile Unit’s THE COMEDY OF ERRORS tours through all five boroughs of NYC from May 2 through May 21, and sits down at The Public from May 25 through June 11. Click here for tour dates and locations. To learn more about the show, check out our podcast episode for Public Square 2.0.

Julia “Juju” Nieto (she/her) is a Mexican and Colombian American dramaturg, writer, and emerging entertainment professional from Los Angeles, California. She recently finished her BFA in Dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University and is a current Master of Entertainment Industry Management student at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. She believes strongly in the power of representation on both the stage and screen, and is looking forward to making waves within the theatre and entertainment industries. Keep up with her on instagram! @jujunieto

This piece was developed with the BIPOC Critics Lab, a new program founded by Jose Solís training the next generation of BIPOC journalists. Follow on Twitter: @BIPOCCriticsLab.

PHOTO: The company of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS; photo by Peter Cooper.