Monday, August 27, 2007

Shakespeare Improvis-ed

Last Friday, I sat in with The Improvised Shakespeare Company. If you haven't seen this show, it is one of the best improvised shows in the city. There's about a dozen players on the roster and the show usually features between five and eight each week. Schedules were tight last week so there were only four of us; Blaine Swen, Ross Bryant, Ric Walker and me.

We really paint ourselves into a corner.

The show is -

- two acts - completely improvised off a title suggested by the audience - each anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes in length, depending on how the story is unfolding

- done in the style and themes of Shakespeare, this includes (trying to) avoiding anachronisms

- done with absolutely no props or costumes, aside from the poofy shirts we're already wearing

- entertaining to the audience, regardless of their familiarity with the bard

Many people assume at the intermission that we are backstage plotting out the second act. We're not. We're usually just sitting around giggling, very manly giggling, about the first act. The only thing we do is recount the characters everyone is playing and what they want. This helps us remember names and helps us, as individual players, see the big picture of the portion of the story we just told. And that's it. We don't even discuss where we'll start when we resume with the second act.

There's a lot of immersion work that goes on in preparing for the show. The best way to learn how to improvise Shakespearean dialogue is to do it. A lot. The cast meets for two hours a week outside the show to do just that. We've also had rehearsal where we studied safe-to-improvise stage combat, watched DVDs of Shakespeare plays, taken vocabulary quizzes and met with professors of literature. It sounds like hard work, but when you enjoy Shakespeare, it's a lot of fun.

During the show, when not on stage, you are off to the side watching the action. Since it's a two-act play, it's very important to know what's going on at every moment. People often play multiple characters, so it's also important to notice their different affectations. Otherwise, someone walks in as "Wormwood" and you call them "Rodinal." This happens probably once or twice a show creating a sudden shift in the player or an awkward moment of confusion.

You're also paying acute attention to see how you can support the scene currently on stage. And I do stress support. Some of our scenes can run very long compared to other improvised shows. It's important to make sure you are adding to the scene and not "saving it" because you think the audience "might" be bored.

Another thing you're doing off to the side is rolling through your head possible directions for the story to go and looking for what might be the best next step for you to take to forward the story and the action. And, of course, being willing to let go of whatever you think should happen next for whatever is happening next.

On Friday, our audience-provided title was King Rodney III. Blaine played King Rodney, protecting the shores of England from the invading Irish. The play unfolded with some Macbeth-ian and Hamlet-ian overtones. Rodney killed his father to take the throne and his father's apparition (Ross) came to haunt him. Three witches foretold Rodney's rise to the throne and his death by the hand of his son. His son (Ric) was a complete wimp who preferred to play with dolls than do battle. I played King Rodney's General, Reginald, an Irish soldier named Dugan, and Prince Rodney III, Jr's n'uncle. Since there was four of us, we all played multiple roles, which made the battle between England and Ireland a lot of fun.

The show went well. A lot of action, death, over-the-top emotions, mystery and bloodshed. My girlfriend said it was the most Shakespearean of the shows she's seen us do. And the big treat was that two of the creators of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, were in the audience. They were in town putting together their show, Completely Hollywood (abridged) and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), over at the Royal George. They chatted with us after the show and were super nice and told us how much they enjoyed the show. The biggest compliment they gave us was to ask us if we had any standard bits that we always did in the show. We don't. You can hear us plug our show on their latest podcast.


On Saturday, I asked...

"A comedy writer is suing Disney because he claims he came up with the idea for 'Hannah Montana,' except his show was named what?"

30% answered "Dakota North Dakota"
- A Disney Dakota Fanning vehicle, no doubt, but no.

10% thought it might be "Eat My Schwartz"
- A Mel Brooks pitch, I'm sure, but no.

10% picked "Out and a Sprout"
- The world's first kid's show featuring a gay single parent and his spy baby. I'd watch that. Disney wouldn't.

The correct answer is "Rock and Roland"

According to the Associated Press, Buddy Sheffield, who has written for The Smothers Brothers Show and In Living Color, says he pitched an idea for a television series called Rock and Roland to the Disney Channel in 2001. The story was about a junior high school student who lived a secret double life as a rock star, according to the lawsuit. Disney Channel officials at first liked the idea, but ultimately passed on it, the lawsuit alleges. The Disney Channel's Hannah Montana is about high school student Miley Stewart, who lives a secret double life as a famous pop star. Cases like this are tricky and hard to prove for either side. It might be that Disney liked his idea, but didn't like it enough and couldn't quite figure out what the project needed to work. And then someone else, independent of Sheffield, pitched Hannah Montanna, and it clicked in a way the other idea didn't. Then, again, some executive may have been sneaky about it and made Sheffield's idea his own. Given the entertainment industry's impeccable rep for honesty and integrity, it's hard to believe something like that could ever happen.