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The pronunciation’s the thing in KU staging of Shakespeare

As it turns out, Shakespeare's question wasn't so much "To be or not to be?" as much as it was "To bay or not to bay?"

While an upcoming production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Kansas University might sound a little strange at first, it's actually just using original pronunciation — or OP.

It's believed to be the first full-length performance of a play using the 400-year old dialect in North America, said Paul Meier, a KU theater professor and the play's director.

"You feel like you're time traveling back to Elizabeth's time and experiencing the play as it was meant to be experienced," he said.

The play is scheduled for performances in mid-November and will feature a typical cast of students from KU's University Theatre, Meier said. Casting and rehearsals will begin this fall.

One of the first questions he's usually asked about the project is how it is, exactly, that he knows what English sounded like back then. There are more ways than one might think, he said. For one, people used to write and spell how they spoke in the 17th century, he said, so a letter from a friend in northern England would look much different from one from a friend in southern England.

Researchers also can go back to rhyming couplets that no longer rhyme for additional clues to pronunciation, matched with contemporary written accounts of Shakespeare's plays.

"There are numbers of tools, and these are just a few of them," said Meier, who also works as a dialect coach for actors, and maintains an online repository of international dialects of English at

Meier said the dialect doesn't sound quite as snooty as the English accent of today. "It was a very down-to-earth production," he said, adding that the pronunciation shouldn't be too difficult for audiences to overcome.

He worked on the project during a recent sabbatical, but said it's been brewing for four to five years. He's collaborated with other experts in the field, including British linguist David Crystal.

Mechele Leon, artistic director of KU's University Theatre, said once an audience's ears catches on to the dialect, people should be able to be right with it.

"It's our mission, obviously, to entertain the community, but another mission of the University Theatre is that it's a laboratory for faculty research," Leon said.