Blaine Swen was in high school with he started doing short-form improvisation. When he had to perform three-minute Shakespeare scenes, an interest in a hybrid of improv and Shakespeare began. In college, he and some friends performed 20-minute improv skits of Elizabethan-style plays, calling themselves the Backstreet Bards.
Then he moved to Chicago, and the idea grew. Now, thanks to the Chicago improv community, his Improvised Shakespeare Company has been performing for five years, growing to 16 members (all male) and touring the country. They come to North Texas this weekend for three performances at Grand Prairie’s Uptown Theater.
In the show, five actors perform a 90-minute, two-act original Shakespeare-like play at each performance, all based on a title suggestion from the audience. Swen talked to TheaterJones about the process.
TheaterJones: How does the show work?
Blaine Swen: Some people think they come and yell out a Shakespeare title and we perform that play. But we ask the audience to make up a brand new title on the spot. We’ve gotten things like The Rocky Hamlet Picture Show or A Midsummer Night's Menopause, and so we worked from those plays, but we've also gotten titles like Ninjas or Robots Attack from Outer Space. ...We perform a new play each time, with new characters and plot.
And you perform it in Elizabethan-era English?
We launch into a play that looks like something Shakespeare would have written. Occasionally you'll see winks to his plays, or you might hear part of a line that exists in one of his plays. If we were a band, we’d say our influences would be Shakespeare and Monty Python.
Do Shakespeare characters pop up in your improvs?
You might see a Romeo-like character and hear references related to the Romeo of Romeo and Juliet, except that he's a brand new Romeo.
Do you draw from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, too?
When we first started, we were more focused on the Elizabethan element of the language, so you could have called us the Improvised Marlowe Company or Improvised Ben Jonson Company. There's a professor we meet with at Loyola University in Chicago, and we go through the canon. The more we delve into actual Shakespeare the more we appreciate him and the more his work influences us. We’ve become pretty specifically an Improvised Shakespeare Company.
It’s pretty amazing that you’re only five years old and are touring the country.
We're still in process of growing. One of the interesting things about our show, when people hear Improvised Shakespeare Company they think it's going to be too high brow, or sounds too silly, and they're discouraged from coming. We're a difficult first sell, but an easy second sell. Once people see it and realize it's accessible and fun, and not the Shakespeare you read as a ninth grader, then they often come back.
Do you use Shakespearean devices that have become part of theater itself?
You'll recognize a lot of Shakespearean elements. We never know what we're going to do on any given day, but you'll see things like fools, royalty, people giving asides, rhyming couplets, insults, metaphors, people in disguise, sprites, things like that. Shakespeare lovers enjoy it because they see the influences. We will tell a completely different story, though.
You can improvise and rhyme?
Some of our guys are brilliantly gifted rhymers and can freestyle. We don't plan rhymes, but one technique we use is setting ourselves up. You’ll see it in the prologue, and often at the end of the scene for an exit with a rhyming couplet.
What about meter? Surely you don't always use iambic pentameter?
The truth is we don't think about it. We allow ourselves to fall into it, and fall out of it. You'll see contemporary breaks in the language, as two characters could be bantering back and forth.
Has improvising Shakespeare made you better when you perform in actual Shakespeare plays?
I would like to say the answer would be yes. We teach workshops on how to understand Shakespeare, and so we hope that our approach helps people to appreciate actual Shakespeare even more, including ourselves. The idea is that when you come and see us, you see us using thees and thous, you see us using metaphor, and interacting with characters that feel so deeply that they can't help but act, and often rashly. You realize that what we're doing is something that Shakespeare did, but to a genius level, so ideally it makes Shakespeare a little less intimidating.
Do you find yourself using that language in everyday life?
At first when we started, yes. It's kind of like when you read Mark Twain and you start thinking with a Southern accent when you put the book down. Shakespeare is the same way. When you interact with Shakespeare, you leave thinking that way for a little while. But the more we do it, the better we get at flipping the switch.