Shakespearian Improv Group to perform in Austin

Sarah-Grace Sweeney

A night spent with The Improvised Shakespeare Company is not an average night at the theater or a typical Shakespeare play. The audience may see some forbidden love or fierce sword fighting, but The Improvised Shakespeare Company is really searching for some honest laughs in a unique, brand new story.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company will be at the Long Center starting Oct. 27 performing improv plays based on the language and themes of the works of William Shakespeare. The play is unnamed because it changes every time the group performs. Blaine Swen, director and founder of The Improvised Shakespeare Company, explained that he takes suggestions for titles from the audience and bases the entire play off those few words.

“The great thing about improvisation is that everyone in the room is experiencing something together for the first time and this is something we will all share together,” Swen said. “Nobody else will get to experience this because it’s the first and last time it’s being created.”

Ann Ciccolella, artistic director of local theater group Austin Shakespeare, said she has seen the improv group perform before.

“A lot of people in town are interested in improv, and this is a really sophisticated version of it,” Ciccolella said. “I don’t think you have to be a Shakespeare fan or a Shakespeare lover though. Obviously if you are, it makes it all the more tasty.”

The Improvised Shakespeare Company got its start in Chicago in 2005. The group has since performed off-Broadway shows and at festivals around the country, receiving awards such as the “Best Improv Group” from the Chicago Reader and a New York Nightlife Award for “Best Comedic Performance by a Group.”

While Swen and the rest of the company cannot practice their lines because everything is improvised, there is plenty they do to prepare. Swen compared the practices to those of a sports team, honing the skills it takes to be a great improvisational performer like athletes practicing skills for game day.

The company practices the skill of supporting each other on stage and their Shakespearian skills with things like vocabulary quizzes. Swen said sometimes they watch Shakespearean films together or see plays together. The group also studies Shakespeare with two professors at Loyola University in Chicago.

“We become more and more versed in Shakespeare. We’re not necessarily experts, but we are certainly passionate about Shakespeare,” Swen said. “He has so much to say about the human condition, it’s just an enriching study.”

Improvisational Shakespeare is an established niche within the improv world. Andy Crouch, educational director at the Hideout Theatre, has directed an improv Shakespeare show in Austin three times and has seen The Improvised Shakespeare Company perform. He said the experience of performing one of these plays is a unique and rewarding one.

“It’s just such a natural fit. Improvisation is a very young art form and Shakespeare is one of the oldest, still-acted theatrical formats that people work in. So there’s something really enjoyable about mixing the two of them,” Crouch said.

Swen said that what he enjoys most about performing is what they call “truth in comedy,” and the honest laughs received from the audience in response to a good story.

“We will try to play scenes honestly and not always just for laughs because when you play a scene honestly, a lot of time the laughs that come are more realistic and deeper and richer,” Swen said.