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The Sonnet Project: Our Favorite Sonnets Reimagined Through Moving Pictures

Jan Chloe A. Pojas | BA English Studies: Literature

It was two in the morning. I was scrambling the internet, with a hope to find the perfect transmedial application of Shakespeare worthy for the Bard’s name and fascinating enough to be my multimedia essay’s topic. And the World Wide Web did not disappoint.

“What did I find?” you may ask. But I think it’s more appropriate to ask, “How many did I find?” Well, I found 142 out of 154 of them; 142 out of 154 videos accompanying 142 out of 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

The Sonnet Project started as a “…crazy idea dreamed by…” by Ross Williams, the Artistic Director of the New York Shakespeare Exchange (NYSX) in 2013, when they were planning to have a big project to commemorate, celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on the 23rd of April 2014. “We’re always looking for new ways to reach audiences that go beyond the restrictions of a live performance in a small theater,” said Williams, in an interview.

Through the project, they also wanted continue their advocacy to make new audiences appreciate the Bard. Well, it is indeed crazy but immensely brave and creative of NYSX to embark on a journey of making 154 short videos of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets in 154 New York locations with 154 actors in originally but from what I have seen, they are doing a great job at  it. “It’s a tapestry of cinematic art that infuses the poetry of William Shakespeare into the poetry of New York City. It’s huge, it’s visceral and it’s right here.”

In their website, they explained that they were “…trying to begin a conversation with Shakespeare the playwright, not Shakespeare the icon. Shakespeare was an artist, and like all artists he was trying to find his voice. He’s no good to us on a pedestal. If we can demystify his work and connect it to our own culture, then we can really get into the heart of what Shakespeare can reveal to us, and about us.”

Being in-charge of all things that concern the creative and artistic side of productions, Williams tries to find locations that will best match the “imagery and rhetorical arguments,” of the sonnets. As an example, he decided to do the “legal-minded Sonnet 46” at the State Supreme Court building. He manages to place in variations in the films by mixing less chartered and known locations like the Holocaust memorial near Madison Square Park with well know places like Grand Central Terminal and the Unisphere.

“I wanted a balance so people from out of town had somewhere they could say, ‘I know what that is,’ and others for New Yorkers who might go by these sites every day without realizing it and now they’ll notice them,” Mr. Williams explained.

It is fascinating to have heard from the directors that they have found real inspirations on how to direct from the locations where the films were taken. A 110-year-old bar in Leidy’s Shore Inn, on Staten Island, inspired Daniel Finley who was directing Sonnet 119, shooting Laurie Birmingham, an actress who works for a regional theater, “as a world-weary regular musing over her drink”.

“We walked in at 10 a.m. and the regulars were there watching OTB and scratching their lotto tickets,” Finley said. “We learned some of their stories and Laurie based her character on those impressions.”

Some directors were just resourceful and sneaky.

For Sonnet 13, director Ryan Mitchel faced quite a challenge. He and actor Devin E. Haqq wanted to have Yankee Stadium as their location, so they went on a tour of it to shoot, but unfortunately, their filming equipment were banned because filming in it requires permits and processing time. So, what they did was they returned a week later, left all the fancy filming paraphernalia and just carried a 35-millimeter camera that can record videos. “I could film with it but they thought I was just taking photos,” Mitchel said.

Another director, Nicholas Biagetti, quite experienced the same thing.  Being unable to get a permit to film Sonnet 50 at Kennedy Airport did not stop him. He successfully tried to film without being noticed. He held his camera low to the ground to film Cristina Lippolis, an actress who was wearing a prosthetic pregnancy belly while lugging a suitcase. “Many passers-by seemed to regard Biagetti as a loutish sort for not carrying her bag. “I got dirty looks,”” he exclaimed.

One of my favorite sonnets is Sonnet 116 and I couldn’t be happier with how the film on it came out. It was shot on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with actress Virginia Donohue who has done a few projects with New York Shakespeare Exchange production alongside with actor/husband Rich Sommer, who might be known to fans of “Mad Men.”

The crew and actors spent four long hours shooting in the pouring rain, but the couple couldn’t care less. “The theme is about love’s constancy and the rain was like another obstacle thrown our way so it fit the theme,” Donohue said, and followed with, “We have small children, so getting a few hours with him away from them is great no matter what.”

The company, which launched the project in 2013, finished its 100th short film with Sonnet 27 in the spring of 2015, directed by Michael Dunaway and Karin Hayes. It stars Carrie Preston, an Emmy award-winning actress at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, who soulfully recites the piece which tackles “about an obsessive love creating a jangle of nerves”.

Preston takes on a role of a married woman who is having workplace affair. The scene was planned to have her commute to get home from work and look exhausted because of traffic. But on the actual shoot, the drive in a hired car over Verrazano-Narrows Bridge went too smoothly. “We were hoping for a traffic jam — it’s the perfect metaphor for being stuck in your own mind at the end of a long day — and we filmed at rush hour, but the traffic flowed perfectly,” Preston said.

In order to get the shots right, Preston, the directors and crew went back over the bridge ten times to have the film looking pristine, spending a little over  than the allotted budget. “What we forgot about was the toll,” Mr. Dunaway said. “I chalk it all up to the sacrifices we make for art.”

Sonnet 22 was the first The Shakespeare Sonnet short film that I have stumbled upon and I just fell in love immediately. It is well done that I just felt the need to share it.

I can’t say anything bad about the remake of Sonnet 108 which stars Tony nominee, Billy Magnussen “in northern Manhattan on a blustery afternoon”. The cinematography is just superb and the emotions that the poet wrote in the sonnet translates very well to film. It is one of the more viewed short films out of the bunch and indeed, an easy favorite.

Sonnet 20 has caused much debate over the years. Scholars believe that it is a clear confession of Shakespeare’s homosexuality, but despite the fact that male friendships in the Elizabethan age were openly affectionate, the strong and powerful emotions the poet conveyed here are indicative of a  sensual and deep love. NYSX managed to showcase the sonnet in such a way that the emotions are present but in a more discreet way. It was shot in Christopher Park in Manhattan.

 

Saving the bests for lasts, Williams reserved Sonnet 18 or popularly known as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” and Shakespeare’s last sonnet, Sonnet 154, starring some of the most famous names in the acting industry. The last sonnet is expected to premier spring of 2016.

To sum it up, from a crazy idea, The Sonnet Project of the New York Shakespeare Exchange blossomed into more than short videos with the sonnets being recited, “not simply an actor standing at a monument reciting a sonnet”, every video became—as how NYSX placed it— “a short independent film.”” Every single sonnet required time and effort beyond our imagining…Each one is expansive, narrative – a work of art,” they described.

The company raised almost $50,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund the filming of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The videos are released singly or in small groups on their website SonnetProjectNYC.com, through the sonnet project mobile app and through their YouTube channel youtube.com/SonnetProjectNYC .

Works Cited:

“What Is The Sonnet Project?” The Sonnet Project NYC. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.

Miller, Stuart. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, All 154, Reimagined Through a New York Lens.” The New York Times. N.p., 5 Apr. 2015. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Ng, David. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets Get a New IPad, IPhone App.” The Los Angeles Times. N.p., 20 May 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Rowen, Bess. “Bringing Shakesy Back: New York Shakespeare Exchange’s Sonnet Project.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 22 July 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

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Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. mlleange1105
    December 4, 2015 at 6:30 am

    There really is something about poetry that makes it seem more alive when it is said out loud. I really loved the sonnet films with the two kids and the lady in the bar. At first, you really have to strain to get used to the words being said, but after getting used to poetry as something heard not seen, then it was really magical. I think my difficulty was also caused by the fact that we often encounter poetry as words on a piece of paper, but I really think that we should start studying them simultaneously as spoken word just like the leaders of these projects have done.

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