ECC hosts Improvised Shakespeare Company
By Chris Peterson For Sun-Times Media March 14, 2013 11:24AM
The Improvised Shakespeare Company is appearing at ECC on March 16. | File photo
The Improvised Shakespeare Company
♦ 7:30 p.m. March 16
♦ Tickets, $33/$29
♦ (847) 622-0300
Updated: March 14, 2013 11:24AM
William Shakespeare is considered by many to be the author of some of the greatest works of literature ever written, but would he have been able to come up with an entire play on the spot in front of hundreds of people with nothing more than a title to work from?
The Bard of Avon had the benefit of taking his time to craft some of the most memorable stories and characters in English literature, but The Improvised Shakespeare Company puts its improv skills to the test by creating an entire play in the style of Shakespeare on the fly, live, based on a single suggestion from the audience.
The critically acclaimed, Chicago-based troupe brings its unique take on Elizabethan drama to the Blizzard Theater at the Elgin Community College Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. March 16.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company has been a fixture at Chicago’s iO Theatre since 2005, and has toured extensively throughout the country. Recently, “Star Trek” star Patrick Stewart joined the company on stage for a surprise guest performance in New York City. Cast member Brendan Dowling said a typical Improvised Shakespeare Company show “owes as much to Monty Python as it does to William Shakespeare” and promises audiences as unique an experience as they’re likely to see anytime soon.
The show begins with an audience member suggesting a title, and Dowling said examples from past shows include “Shylock the Shy Locksmith,” “Taming of the Cougar” and “Kittens From Hell.” From there, it’s up to Dowling and his castmates to create a full Shakespearian play from start to finish with no time to plan ahead.
“There’s always a fun moment for me on stage of, ‘What kind of play is this going to be?’” Dowling said. “But the thing I love about improv is you’re creating the piece with the other people on stage. So even if I have no idea what’s going to happen next, I have total confidence that I’ll be able to figure it out with my scene partner.”
With the title chosen, one of the performers will create a rhyming prologue that may or may not establish the play’s setting, characters, or whether the play is a comedy or tragedy. “And, like characters in a Shakespeare play, once we know what we want, we do anything it takes to get it, which results in either a lot of gory deaths or happy weddings,” Dowling said.
As a veteran of more traditional improv groups including The Second City and ComedySportz, Dowling said a quick wit certainly is crucial to being a member of The Improvised Shakespeare Company.
However, mastering all the “thee”s and “thou”s of Shakespeare’s prose along with the cultural references of the time requires a lot more preparation. “When I first joined the group, I tried to read and watch as much Shakespeare as I could just to absorb the language and style,” Dowling said. “We meet a few times a year with professors from Loyola (University) and discuss a play with them, and they help us understand all of the cultural allusions and the play’s historical context.”
Although improvising an entire play probably wouldn’t have been the way Shakespeare preferred, Dowling said the type of improv acting done by The Improvised Shakespeare Company most likely wouldn’t have been unheard of at that time. Given the amount of material they were expected to memorize, the actors in Shakespeare’s time probably would have had to dabble in improv from time to time.
“A lot of times they wouldn’t even have full copies of the play, but prompt books that told them when they had to enter and what their lines were,” Dowling said. “So I’d imagine that it was pretty common for actors to forget lines and ad-lib to get back to where they needed to be in the text.”
Audiences and critics have clearly given The Improvised Shakespeare Company rave reviews, but how would the Bard himself react? “I hope that Shakespeare would get a kick out of our show,” Dowling said. “I think he’d like how we use the language and switch between high- and low-brow humor.”