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It Was All A Dream: A Hip Hopera

It Was All A Dream: A Hip Hopera
Michelle Smith and Ben Taylor rappin'

Ben Taylor and Michelle Smith

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Below is a statement written by Ben Taylor that describes the concept behind It Was All A Dream, a rap version of A Midsummer Night's Dream he conceived. Taylor is one half of the artistic unit that created this adaptation done as an honours student project in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

CASP notes how the concept of juxtaposing hip-hop with Shakespeare does have precedents, notably the hip-hop production of The Comedy of Errors, done in London's West End and retitled The Bombitty of Errors (May 2003). In October 2002, it was reported that:

"A teenage hip-hop version of 'Romeo and Juliet' starring Lil’ Romeo? That’s what MGM has planned with Artists Production Group's Mark Canton and Lil' Romeo's father, Master P. No director is attached to the project yet. According to The Hollywood Reporter the movie will be called Lil’ Romeo and Lil’ Juliet and will have dance and hip-hop music substituting all the violent scenes in the story. The search is on for an actress to play Lil’ Juliet. Lil’ Romeo, who’s 13, is a rising hip-hop artist whose movie appearances include the summer basketballer Like Mike and Bille Woodruff’s upcoming Honey starring Jessica Alba and Mekhi Phifer. The movie is currently shooting in Toronto." (The Movie Insider)

Hip-hop's association with Shakespeare may well be occurring as much for the extravagant wordplay evident in both genres as it is for the inherent economic benefit of retrofitting Shakespeare via hip-hop to attract a contemporary youth audience.

"Take The Bombitty of Errors, a rap adaptation of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors complete with live DJ, turntables and a mixer. "At first I thought Shakespeare and hip-hop a terrible idea, but then I saw the prologue and realised hip-hop is not just about loud gangster music; it's got poetic sensibility," said director Andy Goldberg …

So why are theatres investing in hip-hop? "Economics - getting the cash flow in," according to actor and BBC 1Xtra radio DJ Rodney P. "In a climate where theatres are stagnating, directors are now turning towards hip-hop as a viable option, and it definitely seems to be working." (BBC News)

Taylor's comments on his own motivations in producing a hip-hop version of A Midsummer Night's Dream point to the aesthetic considerations, especially in relation to the use of language, and the consequent appeal to a diverse audience.

"Artistically, my two loves have always been Shakespeare and Hip-hop. Two entities that literally seem as different as black and white. I had always kept them separate in my love for them. It was only when I was asked in a class to choose a piece of poetry to read that I chose a verse from 2Pac’s “Changes”:

Shakespeare as cholo:
image from It Was All a Dream 

Still I see no changes, can’t a brotha get a little peace?
It’s war in the streets and it’s war in the Middle East
Instead of a war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me

The honesty and the poetry of the words, stripped down from the thugged-out machismo of Tupac Shakur, sounded as legitimate as the words of Robert Frost, or Oscar Wilde, or any of the poets the other students quoted. I realized that the same thing drew me to hip-hop and Shakespeare: the beauty and poetry of the language. Just like with Shakespeare, Hip-hop on paper is, to quote Hamlet, “Words, words, words.” It is the honesty of the delivery and the ability to weave a story that makes hip-hop poetic.

The world of hip-hop is filled with distractions (cars, gold chains, expensive clothes) but when an artist can free himself from those distractions, he can rise above the way hip-hop is perceived by mainstream society: violent, misogynistic, immoral. Tupac Shakur was one of those artists. He was the Michael Jordan of Rap, just like Shakespeare was the Michael Jordan of playwrights. It was these two artists that I hoped to bring together to create something new in It Was All A Dream.

“Hip-hopera” is not a completely new thing. But as far as I know, a Shakespearean Hip-hopera is. Through the similarities I began to notice between hip-hop and the Bard, ideas began to form. “I wonder if it would be possible to rap Shakespeare?” It turns out that Shakespeare on paper is not very different than hip-hop on paper, just replace the thees and thous with expletives. I decided that it was my calling to make a Shakespearean Hip-hopera. The play would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream because, of all the plays in the Shakespearean canon, it has the most rhyming couplets, the largest ensemble cast, and is the most fun. Myself and Michelle Smith, another student actorat Guelph, would play all the characters, adapt it, and direct it ourselves.

The adapting was the most difficult part. As with any Shakespearean play, it had to be condensed to keep the bums in the seats. Michelle and I decided on a running time of an hour and a half before we even began. This gave us a goal. We had our large block of ice (the original text) and we had to rev up the chainsaw and start hacking away to create our ice-sculpture. With such a rich text it is hard to let go of some parts, but we only kept what we believed to be integral to the plot. Our goal was to create something that could be enjoyed by an extremely diverse audience. We wanted it to be understandable by people unfamiliar with Shakespeare. We wanted elements of classical theatre interspersed with a hip modern language and sensibility. When the smoke cleared we had the skeleton of our play. It was like a snowman without a scarf, carrot nose, or toque.

Hip-hop would be the carrot nose, the scarf, and the toque. The time had come to do some writing ourselves. The biggest challenge was not sounding like a bad imitation of Shakespeare. I knew the we had to write rap to open the show full throttle. I did my best not to make a mockery of my favourite MC’s and put the pen to the pad. In the end it was a humorous and informative narrative. We knew where we had to write to fill in gaps, and we filled them.

Performing fourteen characters with two actors and having it be clear who is who was another gargantuan challenge. Some people have enough trouble remembering who is who in Shakespeare when each actor only plays one part. We worked hard on making each character unique. Demetrius was a slouchy chain-smoker, Titania was a hippie.

The most difficult character of all was Puck. We decided that Puck would be played by both of us, sometimes at the same time. Puck became 2Puc, in tribute to the slain rapper 2Pac. Puck is such an important figure in the play because his actions shape the course of the drama, but mostly for the other characters. He undergoes the least significant change during the course of the play, and serves as a semi-involved narrator. For us, 2Puc served as MC for the evening, performing the opening and closing raps. Of all the characters 2Puc has the most opportunity to interact with the audience and it was extremely fun being able to do that. The concept was that it was 2Puc telling the story and playing the other characters. Two actors playing 2Puc, and in turn playing the other characters.

I believe the final product achieved all the goals I had hoped to accomplish. The marriage of Shakespeare and hip-hop seemed uncannily natural. The iambic pentameter had a fluidity that was easily translatable over a beat. Audience responses were remarkably positive, from children to seniors. We made it fun and engaging, the kind of show we both like to see. And something that can be remounted anywhere in the world." (March 2004)

Video Clip: Song 1

Video Clip: Song 2

Video Clip: Song 3

It Was All A Dream: A Hip Hopera: a minimalist staging
with the entire production budget set at $250 (CND)

 

William Shatner's Rap Version of Julius Caesar

Video Clip: Caesar Rap

 


 

 

 

 

 

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