Improvised Shakespeare adds fresh, comedic turns to Bard's turf

The Canadian Press
Nelson Wyatt
MONTREAL — Many people might think twice about perusing a Shakespeare play, much less improvising one.

But Blaine Swen and his merry band of Improvised Shakespeare Co. players take to the stage with relish, firing out Elizabethan bon mots in the course of a one-hour show that has been described as "no-holds Bard."

The troupe is currently being challenged by audiences at Zoofest, Montreal's newest festival which was spun from the mind of Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon. The two festivals run at the same time and complement each other.

Each Improvised Shakespeare show stems from a title suggested by the audience - their opening night show in Montreal was "The Corset of Death."

Like any good Shakespearean effort, it had tragedy and romance, with a damsel fleeing an arranged marriage with creepy old bee-keeping count. True love is found at a masked ball, bringing the laughs as fast and furious as the group's pace.

"We often will get some really contemporary suggestions, like 'Robots Attack'," Swen said of other shows. " We always try to stay true to the Elizabethan nature so we take a twist on robots and try to incorporate these into the piece.

"Somebody asked us to do 'Little House on the Prairie' recently and prairies in the show became tiny little prayers that people would say in this small church. It's really fun."

Swen, who founded the Improvised Shakespeare company in Chicago in 2005, said he got the idea for the troupe when he saw how audiences in the Windy City embraced long-form improv and improv as a narrative telling a whole story.

He had just come from working with another group, the Backstreet Bards in California, but they were tied up with other projects and couldn't participate. He managed to bring together another group of performers and watching the chemistry on stage suggests the gang gets along like Romeo and Juliet.

Swen says speaking in the language of Shakespeare - literally - becomes kind of a habit after a while.

"You know when you read Mark Twain, when you put the book down you sort of think with a Southern accent?" he says in an interview. "If you read Shakespeare and you put it down, you sort of start thinking with 'thees' and 'thous.'

"So in order to make sure we're staying true to the form, we constantly read Shakespeare and keep our noses in the text so that when we put it down it's fresh and we can jump up and just start speaking with sort of an Elizabethan language."

Swen, whose personal favourite Shakespeare play is "Cymbeline," said the group meets regularly for seminars at a local university in Chicago where they get together and read texts and discuss them.

"We are more and more delving into his works and watching plays together and even getting together for film nights and vocabulary quizzes and things like that."

That contributes to a sort of pseudo-Shakespeare with flashes of the Bard's efforts in their improvisations. But the group swears they don't work from a template and everything is made up on the spot. It's more playing off characters they invent in the show, they say. The group offers classes back in Chicago for people who want to learn their tricks and Swen says some teachers in the U.S. city give their students extra credit if they attend one of the troupe's shows.

"I think the reason they do that is because it's a non-intimidating way to get an introduction to the sort of thing Shakespeare does," he said, adding, "Of course, we're not writing Shakespeare. . . ."

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