The thrill of the silence4/27/2016
For Improvised Shakespeare Company, according to Joey Bland, part of the thrill of opening in a new town is the silence.
“In a city where we haven’t played much, for the first five minutes the audience isn’t sure what they’re watching,” he says.
The tension feels scrumptious for Bland and his cast mates.
“We know it won’t be long before they crack up,” he says.
After that, the laughs keep coming, right through two acts of a brand-new, improvised Shakespeare drama. The Company makes it all up, right before your eyes. They do it in language that sounds Elizabethan, and they don’t stint on the songs and swordfights.
“We deliver the whole spectrum, from a fairytale rom-com to a bloodbath of revenge. We’re your one-stop Shakespeare experience,” Bland describes.
Bland claims his company offers “either the smartest stupid show ever or the stupidest smart show.”
Either way, it comes out funny.
“We follow the improv gods, not the Shakespeare gods,” he insists.
Bland and the others come out of that comedy incubator, Second City. At SC, they still pinch-hit occasionally, but they’ve all moved on. Des Moines audiences will recognize one player, Ross Bryant, from his role alongside “Flo” in ads for Progressive Insurance. The base has moved to Los Angeles, the company has split into three, and, these days, Improvised Shakespeare plays all over.
Yet every performance delivers two full acts of instant bard — starting from zero.
“We just ask for a title,” says Bland.
A recent show in L.A., for instance, got a perfect, playful suggestion: “Straight Outa Venice.” The combination of N.W.A. and Shakespeare proved a winner.
“After a show,” Bland reveals, “we always get together, talking it over, laughing again at all the jokes. That one was special.”
Better still, the suggestion involved music.
“We’re all musical, and it’s a rare Shakespeare play that doesn’t have a song or two,” claims Bland.
For these bits, too, the company keeps things simple. “I’ll just hit a note,” Bland explains, “and one of the others will come in.” They work a cappella, without instruments. There is no crew, minimal props and costumes. Also they keep the company all male.
“Having men play women just adds to the comedy,” says Bland.
This comfort with the challenge comes out of deep preparation. When Improvised Shakespeare was getting started, everyone took vocabulary quizzes, watched movies of the plays and even met with Chicago professors. Besides, they were all bright to begin with: Bland financed a Chicago condo by winning several rounds on TV’s “Jeopardy.”
“Some nights it’s like we’ve discovered a new Shakespeare,” he says. “It’s like we’re a weird band of scholars reading this new play aloud. And it’s so funny, and it’s beautiful.”
Overheard in the Lobby: In a coup, the 2017-18 season at Civic Center will include this year’s Broadway sensation, “Hamilton.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.