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July, 2013

Inside Fakespeare

Why Shakespeare?

The Hideout’s big show this summer is Fakespeare. We’re doing eight performances of improvised Shakespeare in August and we’re building up to it with three weekends of scripted Shakespeare in July – the first scripted theatre that the Hideout has ever produced.* (GET YOUR TICKETS) And we’re not just doing one play but two, alternating nights between Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth, both uncut and clocking in around two hours and change with a leisurely intermission.

So how did we end up here? Why Shakespeare? Why so much of it? Why scripted theatre? Well, I’ll tell you…

I’ve been directing a show a year at the Hideout for going on a decade now, including Fandom earlier in 2013, Live Nude Improv a couple years ago, TheatresportsGorilla TheatreSix Degrees, etc., etc,. AND a couple of runs of Improvised Shakespeare in 2008 and 2010.

But I tell this tale vilely.

I should first tell you how I became a life-long fan of the works of William Shakespeare in the summer of 2002 when I spent 10 long weeks in the Texas heat, rehearsing and performing four plays in a nineteenth-century barn-cum-theater through a UT English Department program called Shakespeare at Winedale. It was a life changing experience. I spent a second summer out there and then directed a few Shakespeare plays with friends in Austin over the next few years.**

It also happens that the summer before (2001) I had become hopelessly intrigued by all things improv via classes at the Hideout. So in the early years of this new century the thing I most wanted to do in the world was improvised Shakespeare. And I knew enough about both to know that it was a long way off.

If you’ve seen more than a couple Maestros, you’ve likely seen some form of improvised Shakespeare. It’s usually delightful and it’s almost always super hacky. Misplace a few “thees” and “thous” and call somebody “brave Portfolio” and the audience will go nuts (I’m looking at you, Dav Wallace). Which is fine. And good.

But part of me knew that making a real improv Shakespeare show happen, a proper full length improv show, was going to mean a higher level of fidelity to the material and some serious storytelling chops.

So I bided my time. I saw improvised Shakespeare shows in San Francisco and Chicago that had me champing at the bit, but I was patient. And finally, in 2008, I thought we might have a shot at having a handful of Shakespeare-friendly improvisers who could anchor the show and another handful of baller improvisers who could fake it with the best of them. We did a two month run and it was a blast. The shows were full length improvised plays and for the most part they were solid and there was a respectable amount of Elizabethan language and Shakespearean plot conventions.***

It was so much fun (and audiences were so fantastic) that we did another full run in 2009. Then we left it alone for a while for a variety of boring, logistical reasons, returning to it briefly for the improv Marathon or a holiday one-off here and there. But it’s never been far from my mind.

Let me backtrack again briefly. After Winedale I directed three or four Shakespeare shows in Austin with friends and had some of the most fun I’ve ever had doing it. Maybe “fun” isn’t quite the right word; it was an exhausting and fully engaging experience. There’s something  in the job of making these slightly antique but generally excellent plays amusing, compelling, and understandable for a modern audience. It’s like trying to solve a puzzle where the reward is beautiful language, fascinating ideas articulated in ingenious ways and a really nice piece of theatre that lights up an audience. It’s almost as satisfying as teaching improv to people who are experiencing it for the first time.

Mid last year I began hatching a plan to accomplish both goals of revisiting improvised Shakespeare and try my hand at directing again. It involved convincing improvisers – who can barely be bothered to rehearse once a week for a given show – to sign on for the exponentially more committed process of rehearsing and staging a play and then rolling over into a standard improv run, so in September I started hosting a monthly play reading to quietly and gently start activating people in the improv community who also happened to dig Shakespeare. The readings were a joy and everyone was excited about the project, despite the ambitious/foolhardy scope of it.

In fact we doubled down and expanded to two plays once we realized that only one play meant small parts for a lot of the players.The goal was to use the scripted run to so fully immerse the 15-person cast in Shakespeare that improvisation would be completely fluent in the language, rhythms and story conventions. And alternately we hoped we could bring the immediacy and audience-engagement of improv to the process of preparing the plays and the actual performances themselves.

The results have been wildly successful. The improvisers were natural thespians, willing to try anything without hesitation and I think we’ve built two really interesting plays from that playfulness. And although we haven’t gotten into the bulk of the improv yet, we’re ending each of the scripted shows with a short set of improv games and scenes and the high-fidelity Shakespeare is showing up in spades. Please come see the plays and the improv this month and next!

So why Shakespeare?

a) To make the improv as Shakespearen as possible
b) To create lively, engaging theatre
b) To trick the Hideout into sponsoring my Shakespeare habit
c) Because it’s a ridiculous idea and damn the torpedoes

What’s next? Well, I’ve been saying for a long time that any improviser worth their salt should be able to freestyle rap…

For show dates and descriptions, go to the show page.

*The space has been rented out for plays many times over the years, but always produced by outside companies.
**Ask me or Curtis Luciani about the “cue scripted” Two Gentlemen of Verona in which everyone only memorized their own lines and their three-word cues, and which we put together for the first time ever in front of a live audience.
***We did have to put the kibosh on magical creatures, fairies, witches and prophesies at some point.

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