Translating Shakespeare to the ancient tongue Tlingit

Director connects native Alaskan society to Shakespeare
Saturday, March 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:04 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JUNEAU, Alaska — Jake Waid rubbed his bloodshot eyes, blankly stared at a script for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” then resumed an unfamiliar struggle with a set of lines.

“Tleil tsu tlax yei l kusheek’eiyi ye yageeyi kwasatinch, ch’a aan yak’ei,” he read slowly of what would normally be, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Waid, a 31-year-old who has been acting since he was 15, faces his most daunting stage assignment to date: performing Shakespeare in Tlingit, an American Indian language unique to southeast Alaska and Canada, and in which fewer than 300 people are fluent. Its words are difficult to translate into English sounds.

The role calls for mastering new sets of pauses, sounds and pitches — first with his ears then with his voice — in delivering the lines. That’s not all.

He and 11 other Perseverance Theatre actors had less than one month to learn a story many knew by heart — but that was in English.

“It takes 10 times longer to learn just one line,” said Waid, who plays Macbeth and has performed Shakespeare in theaters worldwide with various production groups since he was a teenager. “As far as the structure of the language and the grammar, it’s still a mystery.”

He reprises his role as Macbeth for Perseverance, which was founded in 1979 in this capital city of 30,000. It’s also where Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “How I Learned to Drive,” was written and developed

Since the early February start of rehearsals, actors, stage crew and directors have been on a harried pace to prepare for a March 8-18 engagement of “Macbeth” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It is part of a six-month “Shakespeare in Washington” celebration conceived by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

It wasn’t just actors facing challenges. Costumes had to be redesigned and stages rebuilt to accommodate this third and final Tlingit production by the Alaskan theater group.

A truck carrying the stage sets were put on a barge — no roads lead out of the Alaska state capital — then driven cross-country and rebuilt in time for final rehearsals. Meanwhile, cast members were pulling all-nighters learning to speak Tlingit with integrity, honoring not only the language’s heritage but the play’s adaptation.

Twice in 2004, Perseverance actors performed Tlingit versions of “Macbeth,” but it was retold primarily in English and featured indigenous Native American dances, music and clothing.

But this time the 12-member cast, whose ages range from 15 to 42, has agreed to perform most of the play in Tlingit (pronounced klink-it).

“It’s like running a marathon, without training for it,” said actor Ishmael Hope, who plays Malcolm, the son of King Duncan who is killed by Macbeth. “But we’re doing the work to make it happen.

“None of us is going to sound like a fluent speaker, because no matter how meticulous we are, it’s a difficult language. But we’ll still be able to convey meaning.”

Director Anita Maynard-Losh first developed the idea of producing a Tlingit version of “Macbeth” while living in the predominantly Tlingit village of Hoonah, about 50 miles west of Juneau, 25 years ago. She conducted artists workshops throughout Alaska when she began seeing connections between the Tlingit culture and “Macbeth” — the relationships with the supernatural and the history of fierce warfare found both in the Tlingit culture and in “Macbeth.”

The first production, performed in Juneau, was almost entirely in English as was a subsequent showing in Anchorage, both three years ago.

After the Anchorage show, the Smithsonian invited Perseverance Theatre to perform its “Macbeth” version and is underwriting most of the costs for a production that exceeds $200,000.

This time, Maynard-Losh wanted to illustrate how Macbeth puts individual gain ahead of the good for the whole, breaking Tlingit tenets. So when characters adhere to tribal values, cast members speak Tlingit; when they espouse individual beliefs, they speak Shakespearean English.

For Waid’s Macbeth, this occasionally means pursuing a seamless segue from English to Tlingit and later back to English during the same scene.

“It’s no judgment on English speakers; it’s just the concept of the play,” Waid said. “It’s still one of the demands of the play. Once it’s all in there, they are all just lines.”

Not only did actors have to learn lines in another language, but Maynard-Losh had to direct a cast without understanding what’s being said.

To help compensate, she concentrated on the characters’ physical features — posture, proximity, facial expressions.

“You guys have got a lot going on with your face, which is terrific,” Maynard-Losh told Hope and cast member Andrew Okpeaha MacLean during a recent rehearsal. “But you’ve got to get the bodies going.”

The cast features nine original members and three new actors, all of whom are of Alaska Native descent. The cast includes a mix of seasoned performers, high school students and one actor making his theater debut.

As in most small productions, many cast members perform multiple roles: one actor writes Tlingit songs for the play; another doubles as choreographer; a third serves as the much-needed language coach.

The cast drew former theater member MacLean, a New York filmmaker whose last play at Perseverance was “Moby-Dick” in 2001. MacLean said he had no plans to resume theater work, until Maynard-Losh decided to tweak her own incarnation of “Macbeth.”

“It’s been one of the focuses in my adult life, to work with the languages in theater and film,” said MacLean, who plays Macduff. “It bothers me that indigenous languages in general are threatened. So, I’ve been trying to do things to take a stand against that, by doing plays and films. Maybe this play is a small thing to do, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Translation began last summer when Hope, an actor who also oversees the theater’s education outreach programs, sought the help of Alaska Native elders. The result was a script that initially made the actors’ eyes glaze over while reading the lines, made up of underscored and accented letters and words with periods in the middle.

Help always seemed within reach.

The wall to the left of the stage is decorated with colored construction paper featuring single words of Tlingit translation, somewhat akin to flash cards.

Sitting on the director’s table are two Tlingit dictionaries, one listing nouns and the other verbs.

Lance Twitchell, who plays Ross, serves as the cast’s language coach and is constantly tweaking the script and assisting with pronunciation.

Rehearsals lasted close to nine hours a day, six days a week. Breaks were really just another chance to review the lines. In the waning days before the cast left for Washington on Feb. 25, they were getting close, but still forgetting some lines.

George Holly, who plays Lennox and wrote the play’s songs, reminded the exhausted cast of the significance of their work.

“Whoever hears Tlingit spoken, even for more than 30 seconds, it’s just a phrase here and there, or it’s from some elders,” he said. “This is so much more.

“This is not really a premiere of a different take on a Shakespearean play; it’s a premiere of a language on the world stage.”

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