“Shit-faced” actors bring new life to Shakespeare

James Rodriguez

The first time Daniel Berger-Jones performed in a Shakespeare play while drunk, he initiated a yoga competition onstage and managed to pull his leg behind his head in a whiskey-fueled feat of athleticism. 

Such antics are all in a day’s work for the classically trained actors of Shit-faced Shakespeare, a touring theater troupe that performs serious Shakespeare plays with one drunken cast member thrown into the fray. The brainchild of Lewis Ironside and fellow actor Christopher Snelson, Shit-faced Shakespeare debuted in the UK in 2010 and expanded to Boston last spring under the direction of Gabriel Kuttner and Berger-Jones. In addition to the Boston and UK casts, the show will open in Austin at the Spider House Ballroom this Friday, where audiences can expect a raucous, booze-filled production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  

“The thing is these were once very lively, interactive bits of theater, and that’s just almost dead,” Ironside said. “People go to Shakespeare, and they appreciate it. We don’t like that. We want people to come to our shows and actually enjoy them. And we work bloody hard to make sure that the show that underlies it is good.” 

UT alumnus Isto Barton is part of the newly formed Austin cast. As a student, Barton spent two summers studying and performing Shakespeare as part of UT’s Shakespeare at Winedale program. Now, Barton will prepare to add an element of improv to his Shakespeare performances, as the sober actors must move the play along in spite of the single inebriated actor. 

“One of my favorite things about any play is when something goes horribly, horribly wrong and you have to figure it out and make it work,” Barton said. “This whole show is based around the idea of entering that little bit of chaos.”

Berger-Jones and Ironside recall instances of partial or full nudity, power tool-wielding drunkards and swordfights conducted with prosthetic limbs borrowed from audience members. Each actor gets chosen to drink based on a rotation and starts drinking four hours before the show. 

“It’s a blast, and it’s a blur,” Berger-Jones said. “You’re trying to be cognizant of the audience. At the same time, you’re trying to fuck with your friends onstage, and it’s super fun. That said, I think most of the laughs actually come from the sober cast bouncing off of the unexpected thing that the drunk just threw at them.” 

Audience members are encouraged to interact with the actors and audibly react to what is happening onstage, making the performances more similar to the Elizabethan atmosphere of Shakespeare’s productions. They can also stop the show at any time if they believe the drunk actor is in danger of sobering up, at which point the actor will have to drink more. 

Despite the debauchery during the play, Berger-Jones said one of the most important parts of the show is taking care of the drunk actor when the curtain closes.

“You have to be supportive because these actors are in their absolutely most vulnerable state in the world,” Berger-Jones said. “Who knows what’s going to come out of you when you’re drunk? There’s an excessive amount of bravery on the parts of these actors to be willing to put themselves in this situation.”

Some have referred to Shit-faced Shakespeare as a gimmick, but Ironside said he embraces the label. 

“The word gimmick has its roots in a physical trick or device a magician will use in order to show you one thing but really give you another,” Ironside said. “And to me, that’s exactly what we do. We’re fooling an audience into actually enjoying the Shakespeare that they’re watching.”