Improvisation and preparation would seem, by definition, diametrical opposites. How, then, to explain the lads (no ladies, as in Shakespeare’s day) of The Improvised Shakespeare Co., who may be the most elaborately prepared improv members in Chicago, if not anywhere?
Showcased in the coveted Friday night slot at iO Chicago, Improvised Shakespeare makes up an entire play in Elizabethan dialogue and iambic pentameter drawn from a title suggested by the audience.
Audiences get two acts—lasting 90 minutes—of the Bard, as if channeled by Monty Python. The actors, in tunics and knee-high socks, play star-crossed lovers and sprites in an impromptu play where the audience suggestion might be, say, The Jackson 5.
How the troupe prepares for the stage is less comedy rehearsal than a regimented, post-graduate course in William Shakespeare. Is there another improv team that has assigned readings and pop quizzes?
The idea for these shows harks back a decade, when a young improviser named Blaine Swen performed at iO West in Los Angeles as part of a troupe called the Backstreet Bards. They performed in a head-to-head improv-off against competing groups and won 10 times in a row. They were offered their own show.
Swen moved to Chicago in 2001 to study for a doctorate degree in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. When he approached iO poobah Charna Halpern three years ago about performing Improvised Shakespeare here, Halpern—who saw Swen perform with his group in L.A—didn’t think twice.
“There was no discussion,” she said. “It took about 31/2 seconds. I wanted it here.”
The 30-year-old Swen, who teaches philosophy at Loyola, now directs his ensemble of 16, of which half a dozen perform on any given Friday. Swen’s training is uncomedically academic—he wants the team to consider fatal flaws and character archetypes before rolling their R’s and gesticulating wildly.
“I didn’t want us to be just a goofy representation of Shakespeare,” Swen said. “All of that stuff is funnier if it’s against the backdrop of authenticity. We wanted to have reference to a sun or a cave and have philosophical import; and then in the next breath, we can have a fart joke.”
Swen’s first lesson to cast members involves demystifying the “thou’s.” “Thee” is the object of a verb (“Get thee to a nunnery.”), “thy” and “thine” are possessives (“Deny thy father and refuse thy name.”). “No” and “yes” become “nay” and “aye.” In one exercise, the group spends an hour talking with one another about their day, using Shakespearean dialogue.
“It took a couple months of shows before I stopped thinking really hard about what I was going to say,” said ensemble member Rich Prouty.
Asked to turn a mundane phrase, such as “I went to the store to buy some clothes,” into Elizabethan, cast member Martin Wilson took all of two seconds before reciting with gusto in his baritone: “Forsooth I’m off, I must away, to receive a doublet or jerkin, which I shall wear upon my bod.”
Readings are assigned regularly—the group is currently studying “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” During Sunday rehearsals, Swen is known to give out vocabulary pop quizzes. There’s no pass/fail or minimum grade requirement—only, as Prouty said, “the shame of not knowing what you should know in front of those you respect.”
About once a month, the troupe meets with Andrew Cutrofello, a philosophy professor at Loyola. They meet in one of the school’s seminar halls, dog-eared copies of Shakespeare’s works in hand.
The last time they met, Cutrofello opened up discussion with “Macbeth,” and specifically the issue of time. Act 1, Scene 7 contains a soliloquy delivered by Macbeth, in which the character says: “But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, we’d jump the life to come.”
The group pondered Macbeth’s desire to fast-forward in life and the uncertain knowledge of the future, and how the theme recurs after Lady Macbeth’s death, in his “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
Then they talked about Adam Sandler’s time-warping movie “Click.”
After these discussions, shows often reflect the tone of their recent readings.
“After talking about ‘Macbeth,’ we did a show that had more supernatural elements, weirdness and darkness than anything we’ve done before,” said cast member Nick Wagner.
When Joe Burton joined the cast two years ago, Swen assigned Plato’s “The Republic” at his first rehearsal.
“That was real dense for me to get through,” Burton said. “But the reason we were reading ‘The Republic’ was to figure out the zeitgeist of the people of that time. What would they have known about philosophy?”
Most lay audiences would laugh at the language they employ (“Thou swag-bellied flax-wench!”). But Cutrofello, who began working with the group pro bono two years ago, said their grasp of Shakespeare goes beyond surface-level understanding.
A few weeks ago, Cutrofello spoke at a symposium on Shakespearean philosophy held at the Newberry Library. The cast sat through a day’s worth of workshops and lectures, then performed at night.
“The level of commitment I find to be amazing,” Cutrofello said. “They’re Shakespearean actors, for sure, who happen to have incredible improvisational gifts.”