Sunday, 15 November 2015

Shit-faced Dramaturgy: Rev Lewis Ironside @ Edinburgh's Christmas

Shit-faced Shakespeare ®

Shit-faced Shakespeare is the deeply highbrow fusion of an entirely serious Shakespeare play with an entirely shit-faced cast member.

Side-splitting, raucous and completely interactive, the show has been running since 2010 and has already entertained over 30,000 eager theatre goers across the UK. Having successfully completed multiple sell-out runs of the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe festivals.

With a genuinely drunken professional actor selected at random every night, no two shows are ever the same and audiences can even dictate when the actor gets to drink more to prevent unwanted sobriety.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare seeks to introduce a new generation of theatre-goers to the works of the Bard by reviving the raucous, interactive and vibrant nature of Elizabethan theatre with a very modern twist - reminding them as we go to always enjoy Shakespeare responsibly.

Where did the inspiration for SFS begin? 

Rev Lewis Ironside: I graduated from East 15 Acting School in 2003 and rather than go into acting, as I'd trained to do, I immediately started a theatre company with a former class mate, Cpt. Chris Snelson. We did what all new theatre companies do and got suitably drunk in order to develop our first 'smash hit' show. 

The following morning we had a single A4 sheet of semi-coherent show titles and ideas, one of which was 'Shit-faced Shakespeare'. We immediately realised this was a bloody stupid concept, scrapped it forever and proceeded to work on a series of varyingly successful productions for several years. 

Flash forward to 2010 and we found ourselves running a 160 capacity theatre tent at the Secret Garden Party music festival. Our job was to curate about 35+ hours of theatre over 4 days and we wanted a headliner for Friday and Saturday night’s running under our own company name. Shit-faced Shakespeare came back to mind and we decided to finally give it a go.
The first show was 15 minutes long and resulted in our actress being driven across site in an ambulance and spending the night under medical supervision. The next day she was released back to us only slightly the worse for ware and word had spread around the festival that we'd killed a person on stage.

We were keen to scrap the concept there and then but the cast themselves (including our previous night's 'victim') begged for another chance to perform the show. The second show ran the full hour and was brilliant... the only slight problem was the near 350+ people who turned up to see a person possibly die. On that occasion the fire brigade turned up as we were way over our max capacity for safety regulations.

We now perform across the UK and USA throughout the year. Things have changed a lot since the early days but the core of the show remains broadly the same. A one hour Shakespeare play, one single drunken cast member and everyone else sober, sharp and trying to improvise their way out of the problems on stage.

If you're looking for the actual inspiration for what it's became then I suppose I'd trace it to the Edinburgh fringe festival 2007 and a production of Bouncy Castle Shakespeare I saw there. It was simply most of Macbeth performed on a bouncy castle. I went to see it in the first week of that year's fringe and it was life changingly brilliant, car-crash theatre. The cast had clearly never rehearsed with an actual bouncy castle, they had full wooden chairs and tables on the thing, they attempted sword fights with actual stage swords, goblets contained actual liquid and all of them were plainly not in the kind of physical shape that bouncing actively for nearly 2 hours requires.

The performance was a beautiful disaster and overran by at least 30 minutes. I raved about this to pretty much everyone who would let me in Edinburgh that year and was hugely disappointed when I went back in the last week to discover they had 'fixed' all the problems. The show ran to time, the costumes were reduced and much lighter than before, the furniture was all either inflatable or plastic, the cast were much fitter and able to breath easily throughout and the sword fights were performed with inflatable weapons.

Rather than enjoy the impossible chaos they had inadvertently

created, they had 'solved' all the problems instead. I think that's when I realised properly what Shit-faced Shakespeare could be and should always strive to be. I love watching actors sweat and struggle and there's much more pleasure for me in seeing somebody attempt the impossible than achieve the achievable. In highfalutin terms we call this style ‘theatre of the confounded’ within the company where nobody can overhear us be serious. Another great Shakespeare show I've since seen, that seems to work along the same principal, would be King Lear with Sheep.

How do you approach picking the texts to use?
There are actually a lot of limitations on the scripts that we can begin to work with. Generally I'm looking for comedies with 2, or fewer, geographical locations, a small-ish group of core characters, an even balance of genders and some genuinely funny (or unique) set pieces within them. Lastly we're looking for plays which would suit the Shit-faced treatment by having something meaty and controversial at the core for modern actors to discuss, rail against or disagree with during the play, i.e. outdated gender politics, classicism or anti-Semitism.

Shit-faced Shakespeare is a short, fringe length, show with just under an hour for the actual play to fit within. We use a small cast of actors (5 to 6) and we generally try to strike a balance of about 1/2 female and male performers. We're also looking for plays where it would be funny for at least 4 of the characters to appear drunk and still keep the play rolling. A very simple core plot for the audience to follow is also required as the complex stuff tends to suffer when a drunk is added to the mix. It's all quite restrictive actually.

We began with A Midsummer Night's Dream and that's a really simple 5 hander with the lovers sections taken in isolation while Puck occasionally interjects - with his lines an amalgam of Puck's and Oberon's - to keep the action going. We've also got an audience interaction section where our Bottom is picked from the audience (so to speak). We always look for fun ways to integrate the audience in every show and our willing participants have been strumpets (Much Ado), dogs (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and suitors (Merchant of Venice).

Some plays have taken a lot more rewriting than others with characters subject to gender flipping, being smooshed together and even new sections being written for them altogether. Ideally the audience should never really be able to tell when we've done this as the 'core' of each play's story remains the same. 

A great example of this is our current production of Merchant of Venice. Here we're written three of the female characters and one of the male parts into one single role, changed the key relationship between 2 of the main characters and even written some new dialogue for Shylock himself. All of this is justified to us, as it helps to tell the actual core story of the play which I believe is the love story between Portia and Bassanio. 
We've tried to leave that core story utterly untouched and audiences seem to be either happy with the changes or unaware of them.

Chiefly though we're looking for great stories with lots of fun action on stage. Shakespeare consistently provides this and we've got a long list of plays we're still waiting to give the Shit-faced treatment to.

And the rehearsal process: is it directed with an all sober cast?
Completely sober. We rehearse long and hard and the weird thing is we're always incredibly proud of the style and content of the sober production that lurks underneath the show. That's all part of the game really. If an inebriated actor is deeply frustrated that their favourite scene always gets cut or they have a favourite monologue that is always being trampled on then their drunk shows give them a chance to actually attempt those bits. They never manage of course but it's fun to watch committed thesps try to get the play out sometimes.

We also know that every night the play has to stand on its own merits with our audiences for long stretches. In some productions the drunk will often not be on stage for around 1/3 of the time. Accordingly we need to make sure that the rest of the show entertains our audience sufficiently and they are often a wee tad rowdy and lubricated themselves.

We do try and do some improv work during rehearsals to get new cast members used to improvising in Shakespearian dialogue and working their way back into the play. All of that is secondary to rehearsing the actual straight play however. If the actor has been drilled correctly into the character they will often just improvise screeds of dialogue drunkenly as the character actually would. We love that as a style.

Naturally we all like a social drink and a good bit of that happens after each rehearsal ends.

What plays have responded best to the treatment?
My personal favourites are Much Ado About Nothing (currently running in Boston) and Merchant of Venice which will be running in London over Christmas. Our audience’s favourite might be A Midsummer Night’s Dream however and its our original and the best known of the 6 shows we currently perform. Midsummer's really has it all with huge drama, randy faeries and the 'love potion' theme running throughout which works wonderfully with the drunken element thrown on-top. 

The idea of the love potion making the male characters behave abhorrently is such a brilliant juxtaposition to the alcohol they may also have drunk. It's a great combo. Midsummer's will be running in Edinburgh over December and in London's west end from April.

We're actively plotting the next play and believe we've got a couple of really good options for 2016 and beyond.

How chaotic have the performances become?
In the 6 years we've been performing there is not a lot that hasn't

happened. We've had partial nudity, full frontal nudity, audience nudity, audience fondling, attempted dancing, bad singing, £280 worth of Dominos pizza drunkenly ordered unbeknownst to us during the show, outings of all kinds (relationship, sexuality, medical, profoundly personal etc.), simulated acts of a sexual nature, actual acts of a slightly sexual nature, group acts of a very sexual nature simulated by the entire front row against their will, acrobatics, matchmaking, feminist diatribes, philosophical treatise, pokemon battles, rap battles, selfies, self help advice sessions, self flagellation, power drill usage, fire extinguisher discharge, parental phone calls, competitive sausage roll eating, racial protests and a sword fight conducted with an audience members prosthetic arm... occasionally some actual Shakespeare occurs.

All that said, we have a compère for the shows and they generally keep a lid on any behaviour which is considered too wild or anything dangerous. It's a bit like a clown and a ring master, you want to almost let the drunk away with the naughty thing but stop them just after they start.

We've not had an injury, complaint or regrettable incident with any member of the cast or audience since we began performing the show professionally 4 years ago.

Do you have plans for any other steaming adaptations of other writers?
Yes. In this year we launched our brand new show Shit-faced Showtime which is our musical theatre take on the Shit-faced idea. They were lucky enough to play to sell out audiences in Edinburgh this August and are now working on their new show for 2016 which will be an adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. It would be fair to say then that the 2nd author(s) we're tackling are Gilbert and Sullivan.

For the other show we'll probably stick to Shakespeare for now. I'm personally a huge fan of other period writers from Johnson to Behn to Sheridan, but Shakespeare is such a cultural touchstone that he's perfect for our cause. There's a lot of casual "Bardolatry" - with apologies to Shaw - in British culture and Shakespeare has probably suffered for this, on balance. Most of the audiences at Shakespearian comedies are drawn from a pretty narrow social band and seem to be there to 'appreciate' the work rather than actually ‘enjoy’ it. 

To me Shakespeare was common entertainment and if aspects of that have been lost to history then we owe it to the author to try and re-claim some of the humour that audiences would have genuinely been able to extract from the original productions. I'm not suggesting that our shows adhere to Shakespeare's intended brand of humour necessarily but if people actually enjoy our work then they might be tempted to seek out the originals if they're new to them.

If there's another author as well known, as misrepresented and as culturally lionised as Shakespeare then we'd gladly give them the treatment... Ben Elton maybe?

Is improvisation part of your process, either in making or in performance?
It's the main element of the performance.

We don't think people would stay to watch a drunk on stage for more than about 10 minutes by themselves. Our audiences come to see a drunk but we hope that they stay to watch the team of very skilled, very funny improvisers try to create a coherent Shakespeare play around whatever chaos our drinker it adding to the world. 

We work pretty hard behind the scenes on that aspect of the show and it's what we're most proud of. 

I reckon about 70% of the laughs we get in our very best shows are generated by the sober cast and not the drinking member.

We do try to insert some improv work into rehearsals but it's pretty impossible to replicate the same conditions of a real drunk full of alcohol and adrenaline mucking about with a live audience. We record and review all the shows with the full cast to watch, discuss and learn from previous shows. Comedy is a serious business and we work pretty hard at it... when we’re not drinking.

Does 'dramaturgy' mean anything to you? If so - what?
Wow, that's a hell of a question. Yes I'd say. To me it's probably got both the historical definition of writer-director and the modern, looser, definition of general theatre maker / lead deviser.

My roles within Shit-faced are pretty wide ranging as I (re)write the scripts, direct, produce, design, act, drink, choreograph the fights, plot the lighting, build the set, curate the website, edit the audio, compère, design the posters, tweet the tweets and pretty much everything else in-between (my producers will readily describe my megalomania to anyone who cares to listen). I wouldn't call myself a dramaturg though. I'd usually just list myself as the director of the show and the chairchap of the company in any published stuff and privately I'd think of my own job as being a theatre maker.

I did train as an actor (3 yr BA thankee kindly) but pretty much figured out that I was on the wrong course half way through my second year. East 15 had just started a Contemporary Theatre BA when I joined and that course always seemed to chime better with my sensibilities as it was primarily led from a perspective of creating theatre in its entirety. I suppose they were making a generation of what I would think of as modern dramaturges.

I've seen the term creep up more and more with other companies and recently heard of a friend's company, who specialise in devised works (Familia De La Noche), getting a specialist dramaturge in to help them complete a project. Perhaps the definition would be devising-director in that instance. I've also become aware of low level 'star name' dramaturg's working in the fringe scene. I've probably seen around half a dozen posters this year, usually for one-handers, where the performer is billed alongside the dramaturg.

Historically I think it's interesting and especially with the classical

bleeding of responsibilities between actors, writers and the role we now think of as director. I heard somewhere, years ago, about the idea of the ‘first actor’ in Elizabethan theatre and the concept really stuck with me. I've since tried to find any actual historical evidence on the damn thing but it's pretty much non-existent so it may have been misremembered by myself or even totally made up!

The concept of a 'first actor' as described to me is pretty plausible though and it runs that basically a writer such as Shakespeare would also have taken the role of ad-hoc director for many of his works. There's good circumstantial evidence for this with other writers of his era, Johnson in particular looks to have had much more of a personal hand in the way his plays were performed especially the child company stuff. 

There's a great bit at the start of one of Johnson’s plays where the stage-keeper and the prompt/author have an argument which shares a lot about the manner the actors may have been sort-of directed (Bartholmew Fayre I think?). 
Shakespeare himself hints at it with the 'direction' given to the mechanicals by Quince in Midsummers. Marlow and Nashe appear to have inhabited one end of the spectrum as pure writers, uninterested in performance and direction but Shakespeare and Johnson could possibly be said to inhabit the role of a prototype dramaturg... then again maybe I'm pushing it there.

I've just always liked the idea of there not being a single director per-se but a lead voice / first actor to cut past the arguments. Certainly if there were formalised actors-managers and actor-writers who themselves would take lead parts in their own plays (Shakespeare as Prospero etc.) then why not assume that these lead company members were 'directing' the junior players in how the part should be spoken as well... Seems both likely and natural.

I think the concept of the modern dramaturg (again, only as I understand it) is probably a double edged sword. I would not describe myself as a professional actor or writer and only just barely as a professional director. 

To have a self proclaimed specialist in writing, devising and directing rolled into one both weakens the crucial specialism in each field and cuts the budget for fringe theatre down by up to 2 people. I'd be really interested to see if it becomes the next fad for drama schools looking to offer novel MAs and BAs in the coming years.

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