-- Sonnet 59
Today, we address a question we often hear from students and audience members: How in the hell do you improvise Shakespeare?
1. Words, Words, Words. I know a couple of improvisers who confess to reading very little Shakespeare and yet they’re still somehow awesome at improvising Shakespeare. But they’re outliers. These preternatural talents are just so good at listening, mirroring, appropriating the language, and intuitively building the narrative that they can build on the offers of the improvisers who have obsessively read and reviewed and rehearsed the language, form, physicality, and world of Shakespeare, thus giving the savants something to absorb in the moment. The point is, most of the actors in a good improvised Shakespeare play are disciplined readers. If you find yourself thrown into a short form Shakespeare scene without time to prep, at least pay attention to the anchors and Yes And like crazy.
That said, if you want to improvise the genre you should find joy in reading and re-reading Shakespeare’s plays and poems, each time with a different focus and a richer reward. For a grasp of the language, first familiarize yourself with the plot of the play before you read it, so your attention will be free to target the vocabulary and wordplay throughout. I recommend The Folger Library editions for individual plays, which offer a plot summary before each scene and maintain unobtrusive footnotes on language and usage on the opposing pages.
Also recommended for your bookshelf:
- The Norton Shakespeare by William Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt (W. W. Norton)
- Playing Shakespeare: An Actor’s Guide by John Barton (Anchor)
- Speaking Shakespeare by Patsy Rodenburg (Palgrave MacMillan)
- Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary & Language Companion by Ben and David Crystal (especially the FEW’s: Frequently Encountered Words)
3. Watch and Learn: In addition to Unexpected Productions, you’ll find excellent examples in Chicago’s Improvised Shakespeare Co. and Seattle’s Lost Folio (Wing-It Productions). Both companies know their Bard, and they each have distinctive approaches, formats, and ensemble dynamics. You can find brief clips online, but I recommend seeing these troupes in person to get the full effect of the performance and the arc of the long form Shakespeare. Naturally, you'll also want to soak up as much live scripted Shakespeare as you can, and there are plenty of classic Shakespeare performances captured on film, available at your local library or via Netflix streaming.
Of course, there is a lot more to cover. Randy Dixon and I started a manuscript on improvising Shakespeare, and we planned at least 9 chapters to cover, including physicality, characters, and plotting. But at first and at last, you have to get over that intimidation factor. Again, the most talented improvisers can drop in out of nowhere with no knowledge of the genre, and as long as the majority of players have laid the groundwork, it’s your fundamental improv skills that will be your first and last resource in creating compelling scenes. Even after years of improvising Shakespeare, I’ve fallen victim to overthinking it, or being so full of my genre cramming that I’m preconceiving or control blocking at every turn. After I got through that phase (I hope), I was able to let go of all of my Shakespeare perfectionism and just flow with the scene, even if someone mixed up a thee with a thou now and then.
We’ve barely scratched the surface in this post, so before we continue with the series, we’d like your feedback: What would you like to know about improvising Shakespeare? What trips you up the most? What tricks or tips help you get into the flow of the form? Post your responses in the comment section and we’ll incorporate them into the next post.