Georgia Clark

The Bard, From Scratch, For Laughs

The Improvised Shakespeare Company have mastered the impossible: off-the-cuff Elizabethan-style improv.

Improvised Shakespeare Company
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, NYC
Thursday January 7th - 11th; Thu–Sun 10pm , Mon 8pm, 10pm
Tickets $20, information

"We love to mime swordfight… a lot." The ISC kick it ye olde style. Photo care of the Improvised Shakespeare Company.

This January New York plays host to Chicago's hugely entertaining Improvised Shakespeare Company. The title says it all: Shakespeare, sans the script. Sound impossible? We spoke to the group's founder Blaine Swen about the ins and the outs of their hey nonny nonnies.

Q. Okay, first things first: how the hell do you guys do what you do? Are you all improv pros who happen to love Elizabethan tragedy, witty wordplay and the odd bout of swordplay?

A. All the guys in the company are killer improvisers who are extremely accomplished outside of The ISC. So, that helps. And we all love Shakespeare’s plays and are committed to studying them. But one of the main things that makes this show tick is the fact we're having so much fun. We love to play together; and when you’re playing you don’t worry so much about “mistakes” in the stories that you’re creating. In fact, what seem at first glance to be mistakes can be turned into great gifts by improvisers that are having a great time.

Q. What are your first memories of Shakespeare, and how have they influenced you pursuing this?


A. I can remember, as a kid, being intimidated by Shakespeare before I’d ever seen or read a play. I just knew, as all kids seemed to, that Shakespeare was difficult to understand. The first scene I can remember actually studying is the first scene of "Romeo & Juliet". Our teacher, Mr. Brown, was trying to dispel the notion that Shakespeare was stuffy by showing us just how bawdy that scene was. In our shows, we try to do something similar to what Mr. Brown was doing. One of our goals is to pay tribute to how exciting and rich (and bawdy) Shakespeare’s plays truly are.

Q. Apart from the language, what are the biggest differences between your work and regular improv shows?

A. You’ll always see a narrative. A lot of improv shows have recurring characters and interconnections, but don't really have a clear plot structure. We take a suggestion from the audience for a title of a play that has yet to be written and create that play from beginning to end right there. We also really embrace the idea, which more and more improv shows are doing, that an improvised show can stand on its own as an evening of theatre, and not just as a first draft of something else.

Q. Favourite Shakespeare play and why?

A. "Cymbeline". If Shakespeare had a troupe of improvisers creating plays on the spot, this is the one they’d create. I like to imagine that in writing this play he was working through the night under a morning deadline and getting progressively drunk and giddy. The play gets wilder and wilder and at the end, Shakespeare gets all of the characters into one room to wrap up plotlines about a war, mixed-up potions, the identity of a headless corpse, the identity of a woman disguised as a boy, kidnapped princes, an attempted seduction, and the god Jupiter. It. Is. Beautiful.

Q. What does an audience expect to see – what Shakespearean techniques/ clichés are sure-fire crowdpleasers?

A. Some come expecting Shakespearean references; some come for the goofiness; some come expecting us to be a train wreck (hopefully only those who have never seen us!) One thing that audiences seem to get a kick out of is men playing women. I don’t know why. They’re probably just blown away by how incredibly accurate and insightful our understanding of the female psyche is.

Q. When you're not improvising Shakespeare in NYC, what else do you get up to?

A. We have regular home shows at the iO Theater in Chicago. So, if you’re ever in Chicago on a Friday night, stop by and see us! We’re also picking up momentum with our national touring company; doing shows at universities, performing arts venues, and festivals like Just For Laughs in Montreal and Bumbershoot in Seattle.

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