For three summers in my youth I worked at the Maryland Renaissance Festival selling milk and cookies, traditional 16th Century fare one would find in England (yeah yeah yeah YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO DRINK MILK AS AN ADULT but I follow God’s law, not man’s law). Before I worked there I attended the faire as a guest. After I stopped working there I went every summer, as a guest. I know how to beat Jacob’s Ladder. Please get in touch with me for all the hot tips. Because of my time there I’ve always loved all things England, during any era, which of course includes William “Billy” Shakespeare. Good ol’ Billy the Kidder. When the folks at Folger Theatre asked if I wanted to speak with someone from The Reduced Shakespeare Company in preparation for their upcoming show William Shakespeare’s Long Lost Play (abridged) I said yes. You see, I had been preparing for this my whole life, well that and ax throwing. I am qualified to do both. Folger got me in touch with Austin Tichenor, promising he is a “very funny guy.” He is a very funny guy, and it takes very funny folks to entertain us with abridged versions of the works of a man most people avoid because his reputation proceeds him. Read William Shakespeare? With all those words? No thank you. Now you don’t have to, but you still should, then meet me at a jousting match at the RenFest. It is Maryland’s state sport after all.
Brightest Young Things: I do like Shakespeare but he is very dense. There were so many words back then. You would think people who lived until they were 30 would have less words so they could say more. How do you begin to chip away and make Shakespeare digestible for people who are very overwhelmed by Shakespeare because he is very intimidating.
Austin Tichenor: He can be intimidating. I think part of the problem for that comes from the way he’s sometimes taught in school. We workshopped Long Lost Shakespeare at Shakespeare Napa Valley last summer and what was so gratifying is although the Shakespeare nerds and scholars really loved it, what was great is the little kids loved it too and I’m talking under ten. Little kids don’t know they’re supposed to be intimidated by Shakespeare. We’ve got the scholars and we’ve got the kids. Now we just have to win over the people who are still intimidated and nervous. The best way to do that is to tell the stories of the plays with utmost clarity. That is true for Shakespeare and comedy, both of the things we specialize in. I hope! That’s one of the things we’re constantly striving towards, to make sense of the language. In our case we’re editing the language. There are only a few places that do Shakespeare unedited but even they edit a little bit. Everybody edits Shakespeare. It’s a great unspoken secret, and it should be to get to the point of the story. I think what happens too is you see a production and you go “I have no idea what he’s saying,” and that’s because the actor doesn’t know what he’s saying.
BYT: That’s something I’ve wondered myself. Do the actors know what is going on?
AT: It’s like learning any language. The more you do it the more comfortable you become with it. You just do it. Even the best actors still struggle with some of the language in Shakespeare that is archaic and old fashioned, that has fallen out of use. The idea they’re expressing and the emotions they’re conveying are timeless. Sometimes the specific references are unknown to us 400 years later. My feeling is if you’re in rehearsal and you don’t know what it means, cut it. I can’t believe I’m saying this in the Folger Shakespeare Library.
BYT: You’re bringing a new show to Folger Theatre, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged). Is this actually based on a long lost first play or is this an original piece?
AT: This is our interpretation of what we wish Shakespeare’s long lost play would be. We wanted to write the long lost first play that we wanted to find and perform. It’s a mash up of all the most famous characters and famous speeches, mashed together in a brand new strangely familiar story.
BYT: Is this the first original, and I guess you could call what you’re doing sampling, play you’ve done?
AT: Typically our shows are sketch shows with a theme, whether it’s American History or The Bible, it’s always 3 idiots trying to bring an immense topic down to two hours. In this case the conceit is we’ve found this manuscript in a parking lot in Leicester but it’s massive and it’s 100 hours long. We’re abridging it down to two hours while keeping the arc of the story line as it continues from the beginning of the play to the end. Then we break to talk about making it happen.
BYT: You’re busting through that 4th wall.
AT: For us there never was a wall just like there was never a wall in Shakespeare’s time. The idea of realism didn’t even exist.
BYT: I often think about how performances were 400 years ago. For example, did they clap at the end? When did we start clapping.
AT: Theater was everything to the Elizabethans, it was art, culture, The Daily Show, satire, a place to gather, a place to seen and by seen and their suspension of disbelief was not difficult. They thought what they were seeing was happening and bought into it so completely. There’s a company in Chicago called the Back Room Shakespeare Project and they perform Shakespeare with no directors, very little rehearsal, for one night only, in a bar. Their contention is Shakespeare was originally performed in a riotous pit of bloodthirsty drunks. We won’t have quite the same vibe here at Folger.
BYT: I’m sure there will be at least one bloodthirsty drunk there. I volunteer. Is it easier or more difficult to write something completely yourself?
AT: The challenge for writing this piece was that we wanted to go through the canon of Shakespeare and excavate actual Shakespeare lines so wherever possible we could use actual lines from Shakespeare to tell the story we’re telling. If we couldn’t find it we’d write our own or change words for a joke. Another challenge was finding which of Shakespeare’s over a thousand characters that would be the most interesting to us and the audience. We focus on a handful of characters everybody knows. You know more Shakespeare than you think you do. He’s all over our language.
BYT: He literally created words we still use today which nowadays I find annoying in the form of terrible slang. Maybe then it was also slang, perhaps it was equally as difficult to introduce a word into the vernacular.
AT: I think what that speaks to is Shakespeare’s lack of preciousness himself about the purity of language. He wasn’t a scholar. He was an artist and a writer and when there wasn’t a word he invented one. Shakespeare played with language and didn’t have any sense of “Oh, I can’t do that.” He just did it. That’s what I love about him. He wasn’t a purist, by any stretch. He took actual history and changed it for his own purposes. I’d like to think we’re carrying on in that spirit.
BYT: Technically you’re being more faithful to Shakespeare than people performing his plays as they are. Do you quote Shakespeare at parties to impress people? I would.
AT: I don’t quote him at parties unless I misquote him for comic effect. I’m not that guy, or at least I hope I’m not!
BYT: You guys very do well in England. I would be really nervous and scared to bring something like this to the place The Bard was born. How did that go?
AT: I think they understand we’re celebrating Shakespeare. The reason we’re as popular in England as we are is we do Shakespeare the way they think Americans would do Shakespeare. We always try to get our facts right when we’re not getting them wrong on person and I think they understand that and might be flattered.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) begins tomorrow at Folger Theater and runs through May 8th. For never was a story of more woe, than if you and your companions missed this show.