Bard for Life

The Improvised Shakespeare Company spins hilarious brand-new yarns from notorious Olde World words

The Hour (Montreal, Canada)
Brett Hooton

Friends, readers, Montrealers, lend me your ears. Our fairest of cities hath produced yet another festival celebration, henceforth known as Zoofest, to chase away the darkness of men's souls with the sunshine of timely guffaws.

Phew, writing like Shakespeare is hard, and Blaine Swen is someone who's intimately familiar with how the Bard's words torture theatre audiences everywhere. As the creator and director of the Improvised Shakespeare Company, he and his cohort have made a name for themselves by spontaneously crafting plays in true Shakespearean style. But what's in a name? Well, we're about to find out when the intrepid improvisers bring their routine to Montreal this week. 

"Everybody has some experience with Shakespeare, whether they love him or hate him," explains Swen about his troupe's appeal. "He is constantly performed and everybody has read a least a little of Romeo and Juliet, or maybe just the Cliffs Notes to get by in high school."

Based in Chicago, the Improvised Shakespeare Company prides itself on its mastery of the themes and techniques of history's greatest playwright. In each show, they ask the audience to suggest the title of a play that's never been written. They then "thee" and "thou" their way through a complete one-act work, using literary tricks like iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, asides and soliloquies. 

But, at the end of the day, Swen feels the company's real affection for Shakespeare shines through in the personalities they conjure. "With our character archetypes," he says, "we aim to make them very Shakespearean in that they feel very richly, deeply, passionately, and they aspire to things like deep love or ambitions to a throne."

Although their chosen medium inevitably leads to onstage silliness, the group takes particular pleasure in fashioning dramatic or even tragic moments alongside the laughs. Hmm, me thinkest this doesn't sound like typical improv, and Swen confirms my suspicions.


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