Improvised Shakespeare

Over the past two days FST has been hosting a national improv festival. It’s a pretty impressive operation—they’ve invited teams from all over the country and the audience turned out in droves.

Because of our schedule and the popularity of the festival, I did not get to see much of it, though I did catch a troupe from Chicago—Improvised Shakespeare—and I was very glad I did. Watching them was like watching, well, magic. I’m sure somewhere there were strings attached, things that held it all together, but to me the whole performance seemed rather impossible.

Now, improv is not something I have a tremendous amount of experience with—either as a spectator or as a performer. It’s a culture I’ve always found a bit mysterious and forbidding. It’s like acting for the theater, but somehow also totally different. In drama school, our teachers felt that training in improv would somehow hinder our progress (I’m not totally sure why, but it was a sentiment I heard expressed more than once), but outside of drama school actors gravitate to it as a way to improve their craft. And in a lot of cases, it seems to work.

I think the thing that is most exciting and most terrifying to me about it is the free reign that is given to impulses. In acting a play or a musical, yes the actors have impulses, but they channel those impulses through the writer’s words and the director’s staging. In improv those impulses become the words and the structure of the piece. They influence everything that comes after. In acting we are trying to give the illusion of spontaneity—or trick ourselves into believing that what we are doing in a given moment is spontaneous. In improv, everything is necessarily spontaneous—there is no way for it to be otherwise.

In this particular piece the troupe, composed of six men, performed a lost work of Shakespeare–with a title determined by the audience. The performance was roughly an hour long, and made use of Shakespearean tropes, language, and archetypes.

Among the things that impressed/delighted me about the performance were:

  • The use of Shakespearean tropes- and how exciting it was when they were executed well. When there was a metaphor that was unpacked and developed in the way Shakespeare might have. When someone achieved a really tremendous few lines of rhyming iambic pentameter. When the structure of their piece matched the structure of plays we had seen many times before. When we recognized things as Shakespearean, when they felt so well executed and so expected that they became utterly surprising.
  • Paired with and perhaps dependent on the effective utilization of the Shakespearean tropes, were the anachronisms. When the Italian soldiers were revealed to be ninja turtles. When contemporary language, innuendo, etc, found its way into their generally Elizabethan lexicon. These moments, because they were rare, were totally surprising and fun.
  • The appearance of the ninja turtles.
  • The patience they had with the long form (nearly an hour). That at the beginning they took time to set everything up, establish some guideposts that they would later return to, that they let it all unfold before they started really going in for the comedy kill. To me that showed a lot of discipline, and made the payoff bigger later on.
  • The piece was great fun when it was delighting, not only in the formulas created by Shakespeare, but also in the forms established by Shakespearean performance. The silliness and artificiality of some of the blocking (before two people fight they must circle each other; when the women are talking about love they must lounge and jump and touch each other a lot) was a really delightful element.
  • It was also wonderful when they used and acknowledged the space itself. They were performing on the set of a show that recently closed here at FST, and the moments when they commented on and made use of that set were positively thrilling. In all likelihood because it added to the uniqueness of the experience, the reminder that it was happening in a particular and peculiar space.

One of the draws of the live theater is that it is an event happening with real bodies both on stage and in the audience in a given moment—though the performance is repeated, it is also unique, not to be repeated in exactly the same way or within the same set of circumstances again. It is immediate, it is alive. This is heightened even further in improv—and the troupe made mention of this fact many times. Over and over again they told us that this is the only time we would be seeing this play, with a title determined by the audience (the only piece of audience suggestion given). The event itself was unique and we were an integral part of it. It did not exist without us, and it would never exist again. What an exhilarating thought.

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