Photograph by Lisa Keating
IAMBIC APPLICATION: A quarter of a million users have downloaded Ron Severdia's Shakespeare texts since July.
The Bard is alive and well in Marin. Indeed, the Bard is alive and well all over the world. Thanks to Mill Valley actor Ron Severdia, the Bard is alive, well and better represented than he may have been in the 400 or so years since the First Folio was released. That's because Severdia has a strange notion of what constitutes a day job. While many actors have a straight gig that they work to support their nighttime passion of trodding the boards, Severdia makes his living on the stage and does his nine to five work for free.
Launching PlayShakespeare.com last year on what would have been the good man's 444th birthday, Severdia estimates that he has earned almost $20 for his singular passion: putting all of William Shakespeare's works—the plays, the sonnets, the poems—on the Internet. That's a lot of words, and they quite literally pack a lot of heft—particularly if one is carrying the 10 pounds or so of The Complete Works around at night, which Severdia was regularly and utterly sick of doing.
"It seemed natural that an actor working on Shakespeare would want that to be as easily accessible as possible," he says. "And really, it started off being a website for me just to put everything online. If other people found it, that's fine, but that's not what it was about."
Severdia, 39, regularly performs with Cal Shakespeare, Marin Shakespeare and the Ross Valley Players, where he will perform a one-man version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol this winter. Once he began building the website, he ran into the tricky matter of what, exactly, is correct when it comes to Shakespeare's original language and intent. Citing MIT's online Shakespeare library as one that is riddled with typos and other plain-out errors in the text, Severdia has combed the work line by line in conjunction with scholars to create what he believes is the cleanest online version yet.
"There are places in Shakespeare's work where it's a little ambiguous, and for me to put a stake in the ground and say that's what we're calling gospel is something that will naturally stir a little bit of controversy," Severdia admits. "The end goal is, here's an interpretation, we think that this is the best interpretation and unless it's a photocopy of the original folio, this is the best, most correct way to represent the author's work."
Which brings us to the next most obvious step. Wouldn't it be great to have all of this rich stagecraft available on a telephone? At the time, way back in 2006, the best application for this would have been through the iPod, which could handle all of Shakespeare's work rearranged as "notes," about 4,000 of them. Quickly tiring of tediously ripping the work of the English language's greatest poet into shreds, Severdia stumbled across Readdle.com, which allows users to upload intact texts for later use. He contacted them about adding Shakespeare to their public domain library, and the idea took. From there, the work went to Apple for iPhone usage when they opened up to third-party applications this summer. Almost a quarter of a million iPhone and iTune users have downloaded Severdia's version of Shakespeare's work since July.
"For me," he says, "it was sort of the Trojan horse for the website. We've been getting a quarter to a half a million hits a month, and when that released, we got close to a million hits in September."
Not only does PlayShakespeare offer a complete text of every play, poem and sonnet, it has forums for often-heated debate, a glossary of words and hyperlinked text that pops up definitions for particularly gnarly Elizabethan verbal inventions. Severdia was careful to create a special forum—imagine it as a room distinctly placed in the back of a castle—for the vehement rabble who like to raise the specter of Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere.
"Shakespeare scholars are a prickly lot, to put it nicely, and that's not even including the ones who are neck deep in the authorship controversy," Severdia sighs. "When you get into that, it's even pricklier. I'm not into debating the authorship stuff, and I created an area so that it doesn't spill out into other areas."
As for his labor of love, Severdia is sanguine. "I don't do it for the money; it's something that I do because I enjoy it," he says. "I'm anticipating that at some point, there might be an educational organization or a Google come along and say that they'd like to support this or buy it from me.
"My wife," he laughs, "would like that."