Charleston City Paper
May 31, 2006
Chicago's Improvised Shakespeare Company hones its Piccolo Fringe act to a fare thee well
by Patrick Sharbaugh
William Shakespeare was best loved, not by the highbrow cultural elitists of his time, but by the poor slobs who comprised the bulk of his audience. The groundlings, as they were known, occupied the equivalent of today's nosebleed section — though, as it happens, they were down in the mud at the foot of the stage instead of in the rafters. These peasants appreciated Shakespeare's adroit mixture of elements from the street — puns, bawdy sexual innuendo, some of the age's most creative insults, and a good swordfight — with exquisite language and heady themes.
This Spoleto, while tuxedoed highbrow elitists are nodding through Charles Gounod's opera Roméo et Juliette at the Gaillard, the rest of us will have the chance to enjoy the kind of Shakespeare his groundlings would have most appreciated. The Improvised Shakespeare Company presents some of the most entertaining Elizabethan performances this side of The Globe but for one small detail: William Shakespeare didn't write them. In fact, they're all made up on the spot.
"Sometimes people think we're doing a straight Shakespeare play. They think if they yell Hamlet, we'll perform Hamlet right there," says Blaine Swen, director and founding member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company. "But we improvise everything. We ask audiences to make up a title, and we take that title and make up a play in a loose Shakespearean style, all of it in iambic pentameter. Which often comes off as Monty Python meets Shakespeare."
Swen actually started improvising Shakespeare six years ago in L.A. at ImprovOlympic West, where he was part of a group called the Backstreet Bards.
"We did these shows we called 'cage matches,' where each group performs for 20 minutes and then audiences vote on the winner. We won 10 times in a row. And when you do that, they force you to retire. But the audiences had grown so large that they offered us a regular Friday night spot. So we became the Spontaneous Shakespeare Company at IO West."
In 2005, when Swen moved to Chicago, IO asked him to start another version there. For a year now, Swen's company has been making up Shakespeare-style plays every Friday night, warming up crowds for IO stalwarts and Piccolo Fringe veterans Baby Wants Candy.
There's a lot more to this act than tossing a few thees and thous into a modern improv format, though. The seven-member troupe creates fully realized two-act plays, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. They perform all of it in iambic pentameter, just as Shakespeare worked. And they don't steal from the Bard; they're making this stuff up.
"We use many of Shakespeare's devices," Swen says. "Like sometimes we break out of iambic pentameter and speak in rhyming couplets, we have men playing women as they did in his day, things like that. And love and lust and power struggles and honor — those themes are often dominant in the plays we improvise."
Swen's company rarely lifts specific elements straight from Shakespeare's plays, but if they do latch onto a familiar plot point, they make it their own.
"We really try to create an original play," he says. "But sometimes there are similarities. Once, for example, we had a prince's dead father come back as a ghost and tell the prince that he'd been murdered. But then the father confessed it was actually the mother who killed him. And then it turns out the father had died in a sadomasochistic sexual ritual, and he was trying to get his son to kill his mom so they could continue the love."
Swen acknowledges that Shakespeare wasn't the only playwright of his day to have achieved success playing to the unwashed masses, just the most recognized by modern audiences.
"Frankly, we could just as easily be the Improvised Marlowe Company. But we probably wouldn't be as popular."