From November 10 through 12, the traveling comedy group The Improvised Shakespeare Company will return to New York City to perform five shows. Tickets are still available for some of the shows, and you can learn more here. On the spot, at each of the five performances, the troupe will perform a fully-improvised and original play in Elizabethan style to the audience's delight. Ahead of their trip east, Blaine Swen, Creator/Director/Performer with IS since 2005, responded to a few questions I submitted to him via email.
Obviously, you've all been well-trained in improv. But how much Shakespeare have you studied? How much does that expertise matter?
Swen: Familiarity with Shakespeare is essential for us. You don't need to be familiar with Shakespeare to watch the show, but we've found that our shows are better when we take Shakespeare seriously as our source material. With that in mind, we meet with two professors at Loyola University, Dr. Andrew Cutrofello and Dr. James Knapp, who are guiding us through Shakespeare's canon.
We also start our rehearsals with quizzes to build our Elizabethan vocabulary. We'll see Shakespearean plays together or watch Shakespearean films. We've even studied non-Shakespearean material, like Plato's Republic or the plays of Ben Jonson, in order to help us improvise in the style of Shakespeare.
It's an incredibly ambitious enterprise. What's the hardest part about performing a fake Shakespearean play?
Swen: For me, one of the hardest things is letting go of control and being willing to yield my plot ideas to someone else's as we work together to build a piece. It also happens to be one of the most exciting things, too.
I'm impressed by how various members of your troupe excel in different ways. For instance, some are more skilled at physical comedy, while others are better rhymers, and more. Does having a balanced crew help make scenes funnier?
Swen: Oh yeah. Every member of the group is really well-rounded, but I think that each person has their own sort of super-power. I like to think of us as a Shakespearean X-Men. We work better as a team that celebrates all of our variation than if we were all Cyclops. Does that make sense?
What's the most fun thing about experimenting with this form of comedy?
Swen: It gives you license to do so much in the same show. You get to play emotionally rich and honest characters along side the absurd and goofy. You get to play with rhyme, wordplay, pop culture, history, great books. You get to be poetic and ridiculous all in the same show. You get to experience collaborative play-writing and performing simultaneously. But I think the most fun thing about this show specifically is the fact that we love playing together. One of the main things that makes this show tick is the fact that we are having so much fun.
Are there other playwrights or literary genres that you'd like to explore for comedy's sake?
Swen: Maybe Thomas Kyd.
What are some of the most memorable names for Shakespearean plays you have asked to put on?
Swen: "The Rocky Hamlet Picture Show," "Shylock, the Shy Locksmith," and "Justin Bieber."