A Midsummer Night’s Menopause? Jersey Shire, anyone? Shakespeare goes improvthis week at the Long Center
Miss Lillegran’s 10th grade English class. The assignment: Read Shakespeare’s King Lear. The surprise: A pop-quiz the next day to make sure we completed the assignment.
Some did. Most didn’t. Of those who did, the comprehension level was minimal. We were a classroom full of panicked 10th graders, and Miss Lillegran clearly took pleasure in seeing us sweat. Foolishly (or perhaps she was conducting a social experiment which we failed miserably), she left us alone to complete the quiz while she went out to have a smoke in the school parking lot. Of course, we all cheated off the smart kid who understood everything, including dramatic irony, Elizabethan language and Shakespearean themes. Crisis averted.
That kind of experience is probably common amongst pubescent middle graders and gangly high school students—it’s easy to be intimidated by Shakespeare. At first, the material reads like a foreign language. For some, it always will.
To one successful improv group, the language of Shakespeare is second nature, rolling off the tongue like butter. The Improvised Shakespeare Company’s (ISC) founder, Blaine Swen, was the guy his classmates probably would have turned to, had they been given a pop quiz on say the motif of incest in Hamlet. Swen discovered at quite a young age his love for The Bard and for acting.
“For me, my love of Shakespeare and improv arose very close together. It was in my junior year of high school that I really became invested in performing both. So, the discovery that they could be combined was very exciting.”
Swen and his crew of merry men are bringing their love of rhyming couplets to the Long Center for the Performing Arts this week. Swen was part of several improvisation groups in California that dabbled in Shakespearean improv, before he founded The ISC in 2005. The group calls Chicago home, where it has been performing its show every Friday night for more than five years, in addition to touring. There are 18 members representing the group at various times, on the road or in Chicago.
We’ve had some real doozies over the years: The Rocky Hamlet Picture Show, A Midsummer Night’s Menopause, Jersey Shire, A Penguin is Not a Wench, Shylock the Shy Locksmith. Wait, you know, the strangest might be Pudgakiss. We had no idea what that meant, but we took it anyway!
What’s unique about going to see The ISC is you never know what you’re going to get. It could be a comedy, or a tragedy featuring a whimsical sprite with an inferiority complex, or a ruthless king in love with his brother’s wife. While there may be some themes and archetypes that repeat, there is never a pre-written script. Everything the audience sees unfold is improvised. It all starts when the audience is asked to suggest a play title and the actors then run with it—no matter how absurd or inappropriate!
“We’ve had some real doozies over the years: The Rocky Hamlet Picture Show, A Midsummer Night’s Menopause, Jersey Shire, A Penguin is Not a Wench, Shylock the Shy Locksmith. Wait, you know, the strangest might be Pudgakiss. We had no idea what that meant, but we took it anyway!” Swen says.
It’s kind of like watching Charlie Sheen on a late night talk show... you just never know what’s going to come out of the actor’s mouths or what’s going to happen next.
“For every show we make up brand new characters, brand new dialogue and a brand new story,” Swen says.
He says the group’s influences (besides Bill himself) include Monty Python, The Simpsons, Christopher Guest and the Chicago improv scene.
So if every show is different, you might wonder how they rehearse. In addition to practicing their improv skills, the troop gets help from some University professors, who are Shakespeare experts. They also start all of their rehearsals off with quizzes to expand their Elizabethan vocabulary. Swen says Shakespeare's influence can be found all over the English language.
“That said, I rarely find myself 'beseeching the barista to grant me but a dram of that sweet Columbian ambrosia,'" he says.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for that sonnet you had to memorize and perform during your junior year of high school, The Improvised Shakespeare Company can probably bring you back there. Back hundreds of years, in fact, to times when fair maidens treasured their chastity and Princes drew their swords to defend the family castle.
Members of The Improvised Shakespeare Company are taking on the roles of bloodthirsty tyrants, desperate lovers and perhaps a few fairies at the Rollins Studio Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts from October 27th to 30th. I beseech thee to prithee click here for more information.