They say you should never meet your heroes, but obviously “they” were never enlightened enough to consider Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company a hero. Like many Shakespeare geeks, I was exposed to Reduced Shakespeare Company’s performance of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) at an impressionable young age. Once the DVD came out, I watched it over and over again, soaking up the irreverence and affection for Shakespeare like a sponge. It never occurred to me that I would one day meet the curly-haired pompous idiot in the black pants whose antics had entertained me so much, let alone be lucky enough to call him a friend, but that’s exactly what has happened.
I first met Austin (after exchanging mutually admiring tweets with him) in April of 2016, during the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s world premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) at the Folger Library. I was prepared to be utterly starstruck, but Austin was so wonderfully down-to-earth that within minutes I felt like I’d known him forever. Totally lacking the pomposity and idiocy of his stage persona, Austin was overwhelmingly encouraging and supportive of my work, immediately welcoming me to play with him in the Shakespeare comedy sandbox. I had literally just started working full-time on Good Tickle Brain, so his enthusiasm meant the world to me.
I could gush about Austin for many more paragraphs, but I’m sure you’d rather hear from him, so here he is, my Comedy Fairy Godfather, in his own words!
1. Who are you? Why Shakespeare?
I’m Austin Tichenor, a playwright, director, and actor. I'm the co-artistic director of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a three-person comic theatre troupe that reduces long serious topics into short silly comedies.
My first exposure to Shakespeare was undoubtedly in the original series of Star Trek! I read Shakespeare in high school English classes and got to see fantastic productions of Shakespeare at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and the Berkeley Reprtory Theatre, but I didn’t get to actually WORK on Shakespeare until grad school where I both played Claudius in a production of Hamlet and reduced my first Shakespeare (it was a directorial exercise: a five minute reduction of Much Ado About Nothing). My first professional theatre job was creating plays for young people so I went to Shakespeare immediately, creating 45 minute cuttings of Much Ado, Midsummer, and The Tempest.
So the opportunity to join the RSC in 1992 and perform its signature work The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) (written by the RSC’s founders) in London’s West End for eight months combined all my theatrical loves: smart silly comedy, non-realistic theatricality, and Shakespeare — which is kinda redundant, now that I think about it
2. What moment(s) in Shakespeare always make you laugh?
My favorite moments are typically when characters make incredible discoveries about themselves, and these are usually comic. Malvolio’s “I am…happy!” Terrible actor Francis Flute fully committing to the moment on “Dead, my dove?” Benedick’s “There’s a double meaning in that.” Hamlet toying with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or telling Claudius he “shall nose” the dead Polonius as he goes upstairs. Olivia’s “Most wonderful!” when the penny drops and she realizes “Cesario” is actually Viola (and Sebastian’s twin).
3. What's a favorite Shakespearean performance anecdote?
I have two!
1) We were performing William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) for the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference — the savviest and most knowledgeable group of people I’ll probably ever perform for, ever. I was playing Richard III and limping downstage to say my first line, one of the most famous first lines in all of Shakespeare. But I was distracted because I saw there were people sitting on the sides and I didn’t want to limp too far downstage for them to see — and in my distraction I said, “Now is the moment of our...” As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I knew I’d blown the line (it’s supposed to be “Now is the winter of our discontent”) and I knew I couldn’t pretend that it hadn’t happened; not in front of that crowd, not in our style of show. So I quite audibly said, “Oh f&$# me,” and limped back offstage to come in again. This time I said the line right and emphasized the first word: “Now is the winter of our discontent!” It brought down the house and everyone asked whether I’d planned it. Sigh…no, I hadn’t.
Mya interjects: I was in the house for this performance and this moment remains one of the highlights of my theatre-going career. What Austin neglects to mention here is that Reed, who had been left alone onstage after Austin had retreated, went over to the wings as if to confer with Austin, and said, sotto voce, “No, I don’t think anybody noticed.”
2) We were performing The Complete Works on a stage that had a little runway that circled the orchestra pit. In one of the scenes, Adam Long (one of the RSC’s founding members) decided to hop over the pit, from the stage to the runway, and he ended breaking the runway floor and falling through the boards. Thankfully uninjured, and delighted that he had this opportunity, he immediately uttered the immortal words, “Don’t worry, it’s just a stage I’m going through."
4. What's one of the more unusual Shakespearean interpretations you've either seen or would like to see?
I’m glad that nowhere in here have you asked what my favorite play is. I don’t have favorite Shakespeare plays, but I do have favorite productions. Here are two:
1) The Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC’s production of Love’s Labor’s Lost was delightful from start to finish: Incredibly smart, wildly funny, and wonderfully charming. The director and her team made the King’s desire for “a little academe” quite literal by re-creating the Folger Library’s handsome reading room onstage. (I wrote about this terrific production here.)
2) The Chicago Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest, co-directed by Aaron Posner and the magician Teller, turned Prospero into an actual wizard and filled the production with literal magic. (There must have been magic in Shakespeare’s original production as the First Folio has a stage direction that mentions that characters disappear by means of “a quaint device”. Teller filled his production with many quaint magic tricks and devices!) With music by Tom Waits and great comedy from its clowns, it was the most entertaining and completely realized production of The Tempest I've ever seen.
When Henry IV (Jeremy Irons) slaps his snotty son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) in The Hollow Crown adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1 taking him (and the audience) by total surprise.
When Francis Flute’s (Sam Rockwell) emotions bubble to the surface unexpectedly in the ridiculous “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the film version of Midsummer.
When Juliet (Claire Danes) stirs and almost wakes up in time to prevent Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) from killing himself in Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
When Antigonus (Gregory Linington) distracted the Bear, dooming himself but preventing the death of Perdita, in the Goodman Theatre production of one of my least favorite plays The Winter’s Tale.
5. What's one of your favorite Shakespearean "hidden gems”?
The hidden gem of Shakespeare is actually right out in the open: He’s written incredibly theatrical plays, filled with rich and elusive characters that still fascinate us 400 years later, and even the most serious of his plays (including his Histories and especially his Tragedies) contain more comedy than is generally realized (or pulled off). Shakespeare was a showman whose livelihood depended on entertaining his audiences, so he created plays filled with music, devices, comic bits, fascinating characters, time jumps, changing perspectives, and shifting tones that are always serious (especially his Comedies) but never solemn.
(You don’t ask what my Shakespearean pet peeve but here it is: Productions that lack urgency and ignore the above, as in: Comedies that are beautiful-looking and melancholy but not funny. Histories that ignore the comic chaos that Shakespeare layers in. Tragedies that are one-note, over-the-top, and not in any way believable. Romances that equate pastoral with languid and not compelling. Argh.)
6. What passages from Shakespeare have stayed with you?
Oh so many...
Beatrice’s “Kill Claudio,” which comes seemingly out of the blue and yet is so right.
Falstaff’s honor speech, when done right, in front of a live audience.
And I find Miranda’s “O brave new world that hath such people in’t” just incredibly moving. (I’m always moved by Joy. Tragedy can suck it.)
Mya interjects: “Tragedy can suck it” might be my new personal motto now. Thanks, Austin.
7. What Shakespeare plays have changed for you?
Henry VI, Part 1. Reading it again recently, I was struck by the level of chaos Shakespeare depicts in a kingdom struggling without a ruler. It’s almost like Monty Python meets Veep: Sentences can’t get finished because people are running in and out, declaring “I’m in charge! I’m in charge!” with grand impotence. Of course Shakespeare would write it like that: He needed to entertain his audience, who were probably also nervous about their aging queen who had yet to declare a successor. Shakespeare created a chaotic warning that England shouldn’t descend into that kind of comically dangerous madness again — a warning that wasn’t really heeded, unfortunately.
8. What Shakespearean character or characters do you identify the most with?
Having played so many of them (albeit in reduced forms), that’s a tough call. But because I’m also an actor and a playwright, the ones I probably identify with the most are Shakespeare's seemingly autobiographical ones: Peter Quince, the only (I think) actor-playwright in the canon. Hamlet, the Danish prince with surprisingly strong opinions about theatre’s power and how certain speeches should be played (and how annoying comedians can be). Benedick, who struggles with his writing so comically. Suffolk, who in Henry VI, Part 1 declares, “I’ll call for pen and ink and write my mind.” And Bottom, of course, who thinks he can play anything.
Mya interjects: PETER QUINCES OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
9. Where can we find out more about you? Are there any projects/events you would like us to check out?
I’ve spent the last several years doing incredibly deep dives into Shakespeare, across many media:
I contribute monthly essays about the intersection between Shakespeare and popular culture for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog.
My weekly podcast (now in its 13th year) is a backstage glimpse into the life and works of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, featuring interviews with our many comedian, actor, playwright, author, director, composer, dramaturg, and artist friends and many many deep dives into matters Shakespearean.
Reed and I also wrote the definitive irreverent reference book, Reduced Shakespeare: The Complete Guide for the Attention-Impaired (abridged), which is still inexplicably in print (perhaps cuz it’s definitive).
We also wrote the stage play William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) (“An absolute resolute hoot of a bawdy comedy of errors!” Broadway World), which premiered at the Folger Theatre in 2016, has toured the US and the UK, and is available for licensing via Broadway Play Publishing.
And in November 2019, the RSC will perform the international premiere in Israel of our brand new script Hamlet’s Big Adventure (a prequel) — what would happen if Tom Stoppard wrote Muppet Babies. It’s the comedy of the Prince of Denmark!
If after reading all this, for some insane reason you still want to get in touch, come find me here on Twitter. I think Mya will agree that it’s a much more civilized and fun place than its reputation suggests.
(Back to Mya) Thanks so much to Austin for taking the time to answer my questions! If you want to HEAR us actually talking to each other check out :
COMING NEXT WEEK: Two phenomenal women who are using Shakespeare to build the most amazing things!