Shakespeare Festival offers a most Unexpected Show
Director: Ron Hippe
Updated from Daily Camera, May 13, 2005
Audiences attending the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's 49th season this summer can expect a return of the unexpected from the 2005 season. Namely, "Unexpected Shaxpere!," an improvised evening of theater done in Shakespearean style.
When CSF Producing Artistic Director Dick Devin went to visit his son, who is an actor with Unexpected Productions in Seattle, ayear ago last November, he encountered Unexpected's actors improvising a play in dialogue that might have pricked Shakespeare's ears. UP is home to the country's oldest TheatreSports troupe, a type of improv based on Brit improv guru Keith Johnstone's improvisational techniques. Devin was so impressed with what he saw on stage, he decided to bring it to Boulder audiences to augment the traditional Shakespeare fare at last summer's festival. It was so popular they are back for a return engagement this summer in 2006.
In "Unexpected Shaxpere!" six actors take the stage and ask the audience for three suggestions-a place, profession and object they'd like to see in the evening's performance. From there, the actors-often using the iambic pentameter verse Shakespeare mastered-begin the opening scene of an improvised play.
"An hour and 20 minutes later, you've seen a whole new play made up in front of your eyes," Devin said. "It feels like you've seen a new Shakespeare play, and it certainly sounds like you have."
Even the lighting-board operator will get in on the action. The lighting designer will create a dozen stock lighting arrangements, and the board operator will be free to accentuate the story unfolding on stage with different lighting plots during each performance.
"If they improvise into a church, he'll put in church lighting and ease that into the scene. It gives a spontaneous new look to a scene without having to plan it," Devin said.
"Unexpected Shaxpere!" plays 20 times, and each performance will be different.
"There's always a lot of comedy. They're very funny people," Devin said. "And there's often a lot of death and tragedy too."
Devin hopes the improv group will draw audiences who wouldn't normally come to CSF. It will play July 28-Aug. 19, and seven late-evening (9:30 p.m.) shows are on tap, along with the normal 7 p.m. curtains and 2 p.m. matinees.
"Unexpected Shaxpere!" will play in repertory with CSF's three traditional offerings, "The Tempest," "As You Like It" and "The Merchant of Venice."
-Mark Collins, Daily Camera Theater Critic
Improv: A Brief History
- Tristan Devin
As a performance genre, improvisation came to the stage rather late. Musicians, painters, and poets had free-associated and splattered their way into the canon decades before improvised theatre began popping up in London and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. This was an anomaly, considering that theatre had long led the charge where innovation was concerned. Combining the written word, speech, design, music, and dance, theatre mixed media centuries before that term had been uttered. So why was theatre a latecomer to improvisation? Perhaps it was the god-like status of playwright and director. Or perhaps it was the Stanislavskian stranglehold that made improv, when it came along, seem to many like clowning.
In fact, clowning was just what Keith Johnstone had in mind when he began pushing students to improvise in workshops. Johnstone, a reader for Royal Court Theatre, was frustrated with the wooden, pretentious quality of English theatre in the 1950s. So he encouraged actors to use funny faces and accents, to be silly, to stop being imaginative and just be obvious. Everyone laughed so hard that they decided to invite an audience. Later, Johnstone moved to Calgary, Alberta, where he founded the Loose Moose Theatre Company and created Theatresports, a type of competitive improv. He also wrote Impro, the seminal book on improvised theatre.
Improvisation, as Johnstone was aware, had been common in Italian theatre since the sixteenth century. Commedia dell'arte involved juggling, acrobatics, and satirical plays that used established characters, but no set dialog. In this sense, improv was clowning, and satirical clowning at that. This satirical bent, perhaps more than anything, suggests why improv came late to the theater: improv was so in and of the moment, so suited to satire, and so ill-suited to pretension, that it naturally gravitated toward the popular rather than the avant-garde. Until the satire boom of the sixties, the theatrical soil just wasn't suitable for improv.
In 1955, David Shepard and Paul Sills (son of Viola Spolin, another early improv innovator) formed The Compass Theater, later to become The Second City. They wanted to use some of the Commedia methods to improvise plays. One of the earliest Second City performers was Del Close. Close created an unstructured long-form improvisation known as the Harold, which explores a single word through scenes, games, and monologues. Working separately, Close and Johnstone created what we now know as improv.
The most powerful element of Close's teaching was the "group mind." Improv is a naturally collaborative art. Together, performers write, direct, and perform the show, feeding off the audience's suggestions and energy. Close believed that, at its best, when performers are able to turn off their self-conscious minds, allowing words and symbols to erupt from within, all of the minds in the performance space meld together in a profound, though ephemeral, moment of connection. Close died in 1999.
Today thousands of improv groups all over the world perform variations of Close's and Johnstone's forms. Their work has had a pervasive effect on television and film as well as theatre.