When we last left our heroes, there was A GHOST.
I realize it’s been two installments and we haven’t even finished the first scene. I hope you’re in this for the long haul, people…
When we last left our heroes, there was A GHOST.
I realize it’s been two installments and we haven’t even finished the first scene. I hope you’re in this for the long haul, people…
Let’s get this show underway with the best opening line in all of Shakespeare!
“Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio" always makes me laugh. Tune in next week to find out what Horatio has to say.
Shortly after I had started Good Tickle Brain, I drew up the Dramatis Personae of Hamlet. That was, incidentally, the very first thing I drew after settling on the “circle on top of a kind of triangle” stick figure template that now forms the very base and pillar of my art.
Now, six years later, I am revisiting that Dramatis Personae ahead of launching into a full scene-by-scene retelling of Hamlet! Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!
A moment of silence for Voltemand and Cornelius, who didn’t make this cut.
OK, that’s enough silence. Nobody really misses them.
I’m so very excited about today’s installment of Q&A August, because it means I get to formally introduce you to Kate Pitt, my pocket dramaturg and Shakespearean soulmate! I first met Kate when she saved my life by letting me crash on the couch in her hotel room before the closing banquet of the 2016 Shakespeare Theatre Association conference. It was my first conference and, by the last day, I was so sleep deprived that I could hardly function. Despite meeting me in such a ragged and incoherent condition, Kate, who was then working in Public Programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, decided to invite me to the Folger for a public interview/talk event.
You can read up on my visit to the Folger here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. But, long story short, in Kate I found an absolutely kindred spirit. Within half an hour we were completing each others’ sentences, most because we were conversing almost entirely in Shakespeare quotes. Since then we have gone on several Shakespeare adventures together, including a long-overdue joint pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year. Despite having spent extended periods of time in close proximity, we have remained friends, which is something of a minor miracle.
Apart from being a delightful human being, Kate is also a genuine Shakespearean powerhouse, with a vast amount of both scholarly and practical Shakespeare knowledge and experience. You might have noticed that many of my recent comics have included the note “Thanks to my pocket dramaturg, Kate Pitt, for consulting with me on this comic.” This is because I quickly fell into the habit of texting Kate with random Shakespeare-related questions, like “IN HOW MANY SHAKESPEARE PLAYS DO SHEEP REGULARLY APPEAR ON STAGE?” Kate, in her infinite patience and bottomless depth of knowledge, would always promptly text me back with answers, including sources. It was like having my own personal dramaturg in my pocket.
Since then I have often brainstormed comic ideas with her, run drafts past for her approval, and asked for her help when wrestling with particularly troublesome punchlines. (Among other things, she helped me finalize the list of questions I’ve been asking everybody this month!) Creating Good Tickle Brain is a very solitary occupation, and for most of the past five and a half years I’ve been essentially operating in a vacuum. It’s been fun, but it’s also been lonely and isolating at times. Being able to bounce ideas off of Kate, and occasionally commiserate with her on the challenges of being self-employed businesswomen in the Shakespeare world, has made both my job and my life immeasurably more enjoyable.
And so, it gives me GREAT pleasure to turn things over to my pocket dramatrug!
I’m Kate Pitt. I’m a dramaturg, writer, producer, and director. I grew up watching Shakespeare films with my parents and saw an outdoor Midsummer at the Edith Wharton house in Lenox when I was about seven. The Mechanicals drove up in a real Jeep, the fairies crept out of the actual woods (I was a city kid – trees were a big deal!), and I was hooked. I’ve also had many wonderful teachers.
Orlando forlornly waving his arm and saying “It is my arm”? I’M THERE. A really good (bad) Viola-Sir Andrew fight? SIGN ME UP. Benedict being terrible at hiding? THE BEST. Pyramus’ never-ending death? I LOVE IT. The physical comedy in the plays always makes me laugh. There are lines of text that I almost always laugh at, but I’ve been more delighted when those bits are reinterpreted in ways that sacrifice the laugh, but gain something more interesting in its place. Olivia’s wide-eyed “most wonderful!” is a war-horse, but I once heard it delivered with quiet awe rather than schtick and it was shockingly beautiful. “The dead can live again” rather than “another one!”
Mya interjects: Ok, yes, I also love “It is my arm.”
A Winter’s Tale where the bear was a puppet, and entered down the aisle sniffing at the audience as it slowly stalked Antigonus. The bear nosed at the handbag of an old lady in the front row and growled at her. She growled right back.
Mya interjects: Don’t mess with old ladies’ handbags.
The opening speech of Richard III done as Bunraku puppet theater, but with a person as the puppet. It showed the pain of being “unfinished” so beautifully while also being horrifying and incredibly funny. This Richard was so close to being a person (“a real boy!”) but knew that he lacked some essential, animating humanity and made a conscious decision to hurt people because of it.
I love watching the characters on the sidelines – the ones who aren’t the center of attention but are telling incredibly rich stories with their silence. Margaret in Much Ado is a great example and I always watch her when the Prince explains why he thinks Hero is disloyal. Margaret knows in that moment that the ruined wedding is her fault but she says and does…nothing. Aufidius and Isabella also have whole histories in stillness.
I’ve had Henry V’s “upon the king” and the Scrivener from Richard III on my mind – the responsibility of leadership and the realization of its corruption – but my favorites are the ones I think as my own thoughts and it takes a minute to figure out where they came from. i.e. on a hiking trip in the pouring rain, carrying a heavy pack, and staring up at switchback #492, I thought, “Blow, wind! come, wrack! At least we'll die with harness on our back!” It took until the top of the mountain to figure that one out.
Mya interjects: If you’re not familiar with the Scrivener from Richard III (and there’s no reason why you should be, since his scene is almost always cut), his one speech goes as follows:
Here is the indictment of the good Lord Hastings,
Which in a set hand fairly is engrossed,
That it may be today read o’er in Paul’s.
And mark how well the sequel hangs together:
Eleven hours I have spent to write it over,
For yesternight by Catesby was it sent me;
The precedent was full as long a-doing,
And yet within these five hours Hastings lived,
Untainted, unexamined, free, at liberty.
Here’s a good world the while! Who is so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?
Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.
I’ve never gotten over the beauty of this line from Pericles – silence may be the perfectest herald of joy, but if you must use words, these ones are pretty great:
“Give me a gash, put me to present pain, lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me o’erbear the shores of my mortality and drown me with their sweetness.”
All of the plays have changed as I’ve gotten older, but the ones that deal with grief have altered the most. A friend died suddenly when we were eighteen and I reached out for Cleopatra and Constance without consciously knowing why. My father died five years later, and by then I knew that I would find some kind of recognition in the plays and I deliberately went to them. The words were always beautiful, but now I knew what they meant. I must have heard Claudius’ “that father lost, lost his” speech a hundred times but never understood the obscenity of telling someone “the right way” to grieve until someone did it to me. Cordelia comforting the confused and frightened Lear sits close to my heart now, and Ophelia’s madness has method in’t. Hamlet’s “mirror up to nature” didn’t tell me what I’d see or how to respond, but it allowed me look at myself and observe both the shadow of my sorrow and the thing itself when I needed it most.
Beatrice. I love her wit, her walls and her willingness to climb over them, her delight in her friends’ happiness and her white-hot fury at their pain.
Mya interjects: Can confirm, Kate is totally Beatrice.
(Back to Mya) Thanks so much to Kate not only for answering the questions she helped me come up with, but also for being an unfailingly helpful creative and emotional outlet. Get thee a Kate.
COMING NEXT WEEK: A wonderful woman who is training small children to become the next generation of Shakespeare geeks, and two Shakespeare geeks who regularly act like small children!
Remember back when I called Austin Tichenor my Comedy Fairy Godfather? Well, the subject of today’s Q&A August interview is my Shakespeare Fairy Godfather. David Prosser is the Literary and Editorial Director at the Stratford Festival of Canada, and is also indirectly responsible for much of Good Tickle Brain’s growth and success. (Also, if he’s reading this, I would like to sincerely apologize to him for all grammatical infelicities in today’s post, most likely related to misplaced punctuation, the correct disposition of which I have never properly mastered.)
I met David on Twitter a scant four months after I had started Good Tickle Brain. Fresh out of the gates, with few followers or readers, I was desperately trying to get my work in front of as many eyes as possible, so I went on Twitter and promptly followed everyone I could find who was remotely associated with the Stratford Festival. One of the people I stumbled upon was David, whose wonderfully dry and witty tweets immediately attracted my attention. On day, embroiled in a bit of an ongoing brouhaha with some Oxfordians, David tweeted a riff on “Duke of Earl”, rewriting the chorus as “dupes, dupes, dupes, dupes of Earl”. Never one to shy away from a song parody, I provided the rest of the lyrics. David was amused enough by my efforts that he followed me, and started retweeting my comics. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me at the time.
Later on that year, I was visiting the Stratford Festival with my family, and (of course) tweeting about it, when David slid into my DMs and invited me up to the Festival offices to have tea with him before that day’s matinee. I jumped at the chance, and we spent a wonderful half an hour or so chatting in the sunshine on the Festival Theatre balcony. It was like meeting my long-lost benevolent Scottish uncle. David was not only immediately supportive and encouraging of my work, but he also began actively brainstorming ways in which to help me reach a larger audience, specifically among the theatre community. To that end, he introduced me to the Shakespeare Theatre Association, which quickly became my Shakespeare family and has helped me grow and develop Good Tickle Brain into what it is today.
There is absolutely no reason why the Literary and Editorial Director of the largest classical repertory theatre in North America should have given the time of day to a random person on the internet who drew sub-par stick figures and routinely committed egregious spelling errors in her text. However, David did not hesitate to lift me up, and has been a constantly warm, supportive, and thoroughly entertaining presence in my life since then.
But I’ll let him talk now. He’s much better at it than I am.
Who am I indeed? Isn’t that the mystery that haunts us all? “Who’s there?” asks Barnardo in the opening words of Hamlet, and that same question echoes down through centuries of subsequent literature. Call me David. Or Prosser, David Prosser.
I was born and grew up in Scotland, where, in early childhood, I first encountered Shakespeare as the author of the “Scottish play” and didn’t realize till some time later that he’d written anything else. I came to Canada in my twenties; had a fourteen-year career at a small daily newspaper, where, among other things I was the theatre critic (boo, hiss) and editor of the TV listings (zzzzzz….); then quit in order to spend more time with my wife and cats and to pursue new opportunities for financial ruin; and finally washed up on the shores of the Stratford Festival, where, under various unconvincing job titles (most latterly that of Literary and Editorial Director), I have been an in-house wordsmith for the past quarter-century.
And why Shakespeare? As a nearly dead white male myself, I have a particular affinity for the work of dead white males in general—and Shakespeare in particular has intrigued me ever since childhood, when my father (an English teacher) showed me some black-and-white slides of scenes from a staging of that Scottish play referenced above. I’m sure if I could see them now, those images would prove cheesy; at the time, though, they haunted my imagination; it wasn’t till some time later that I realized there were words to go with them.
As I started to discover the actual plays, I found to my excitement that they had the mind-expanding power of dreams, in which human life is transformed into something rich and strange—an alternative universe of experience, if you like, but one that brilliantly illuminates the “real” one.
Sticking with the Scottish play, I generally laugh at Macbeth’s (oops, said it) “‘Twas a rough night,” and I always smile whenever an actor has to tackle the unsayable “O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart / Cannot conceive nor name thee!” Also, I’m afraid I can never suppress a schoolboy snigger when Montjoy, in Henry V, comes in and announces himself with the words “You know me by my habit.” I can’t remember where I heard it or read it, but someone, somewhere, made a joke about the entire English army responding with rude gestures suggestive of that habit, and I have never been able to get that out of my mind.
See Montjoy above. Also this, one of the many stories from the late Richard Monette’s memoir This Rough Magic: an autobiography “as told to,” er, well, me. Peter Ustinov was playing King Lear at the Stratford Festival in 1979; Richard was playing Edmund.
“At one performance,” Richard recalled, “Peter began, ‘We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage. . . .’ and then he dried. ‘We’ll sing . . .’ he repeated, ‘and then we’ll sing some more. Oh, we’ll laugh. . . . We’ll dance. . . . And then . . . we’ll sing some more.’ Realizing what had happened, I tried to save him by coming in early with my line: ‘Take them away.’ He regarded me with mild curiosity, then waved me away with his hand—'Foof, foof, foof’—and began the whole speech over again, determined to say it all.”
In 1998, or thereabouts, at a theatre festival in Quebec City, I saw a production of The Tempest directed by Robert Lepage. More precisely, it was La Tempête, a translation into French by Normand Chaurette. What was novel about it were the settings, which were computer-created projections—but not just flat background images. The audience wore polarized 3D glasses throughout, which created the illusion of a three-dimensional landscape and objects (such as the royal ship) that seemed to come floating out into the auditorium. It was a stunning effect, perfectly suited to the magical powers referenced in the play, and it had a huge effect on me.
An obvious one, obviously, but it’s the “wretched strangers” speech from Sir Thomas More.
I am constantly on the alert for opportunities to work any of the following into my conversation:
“Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct.”
“I’ll no pullet sperm in my brewage.” (Have to be careful about that one when placing an order in a bar or restaurant, though, or the server might spit in my Sauvignon.)
“For this relief much thanks.” (Always apt in washrooms.)
More seriously, I always get a wave of nostalgia for the homeland when I hear Macbeth say, “Light thickens, and the crow / Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.” For some reason that line evokes Scotland so strongly for me that I feel sure Shakespeare must have toured there when the plague was on in London.
When I was an undergraduate, a professor told me that Titus Andronicus was an absolutely dreadful play, what could Shakespeare have been thinking; and for many years I believed her. Then I actually read it, and thought, wow.
Wow, that is a question, isn’t it? Erm, well…. Oh, I don’t know: it might be…. Or, no, maybe not. No, shoot, I just can’t make up my mind. Sorry, I know I’m procrastinating, but I’m going to have to set this aside for a while, while I think on it more precisely. Maybe get a bit of sea air to clear my mind….
Okay, that’s better. I’d like to think it maybe would be Benedick, but I’m very much afraid it might be Falstaff. Or King John.
Actually, a few years ago, I really identified with the King of France, but, lacking a Helena, I had surgery for it, and I’m fine now.
I pop up from time to time on Facebook (though not Instagram, which I’ve never seen the point of). Occasionally I make snarky remarks on Twitter. Otherwise, I can sometimes be found in the lobby of the Festival Theatre, giving Lobby Talks before selected performances. C’mon down! They’re free!
(Back to Mya) Thanks so much to David for taking the time to answer my questions! If you can, pick up a copy of former Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette’s memoir, This Rough Magic, which David worked on. It’s a wonderful read.
COMING THURSDAY: My other self, my counsel’s consistory, my pocket dramaturg!
The only trouble with living in Michigan is that almost all my Shakespeare friends are elsewhere. I live in a little Shakespeare-less bubble, connected to my fellow Shakespeare geeks only through social media, with no local Shakespeare community to turn. Or at least that was the case until Melinda Hall, a New York based Shakespearean, volunteered to connect me with Sam White, the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare in Detroit, a homegrown Shakespeare company just 40 minutes down the interstate from me.
A few days later I was selling my wares at a local artist festival when I got an e-mail from Sam saying she was coming to see me. Sure enough, a short while later Sam bounded up to my table and introduced herself, and I’ve been a huge fan of her ever since. I’ve since gone to see as many Shakespeare in Detroit productions as I’ve been able to, including their production of the Play On! Twelfth Night translation, and I am so excited to see them transition to a permanent performance space in the coming years.
I am totally in awe of Sam. She wears so many hats (administrator, producer, director, educator, artist, author, entrepreneur, the list goes on and on) that even just thinking about all the things she’s juggling at any one time makes my brain want to shut down. It’s an overused cliche to call someone your hero, but she truly, genuinely is one of mine.
Take it away, Sam!
I am Sam White. Shakespeare because my momma told me so. My mother introduced me to the Bard when I was 8 years old and that was the catalyst of my life's work which has manifested Shakespeare in Detroit. Rap music was not allowed in our home but books and theatre were absolutely loved and shared by mother, and so I inherited my love for Will because of her insistence to have her children think outside of the confines of our neighborhood and family dynamics.
Mya interjects: So, a few months after I first met Sam, she was interviewed on local TV about Shakespeare in Detroit, and talked about how she was introduced to Shakespeare. I was surprised and delighted to see what she had decided to wear for the interview:
I laugh at a lot of moments in Shakespeare. I think Henry IV Part 1 is fun and hilarious to read and watch because of the antics between Hal and Falstaff. I love friends who know how to give each other a hard time but also love each other through hard times.
Hmmm. I am not sure. I think I am always blown away by the fact that I thought the only people that would show up for Shakespeare in Detroit's first performance would be my mother and a couple of stray squirrels at Grand Circus Park. The fact that 500 people showed up to see a performance of Othello always amuses me and makes me really grateful.
I think I find traditional Shakespeare to be unusual. I am a huge proponent for classical work being very classical and period. But I like a few modern surprises in the work I see. For example, Will would've have used modern music in his shows if he were working today and I try to do the same no matter how many corsets or doublets are onstage. I think not being aware of the tastes and accessibility for new audiences is quite unusual.
Cymbeline is underrated. I love a story about a woman loving who she wants and defying the patriarchy. I feel you, Imogen.
Mya interjects: I knew there was a reason I liked Sam! Yes, Cymbeline is TOTALLY a hidden gem, and Imogen is the gem in that play.
“In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger." That's my mantra, currently. I pick my battles wisely in art and business. Being a black woman, leading a classical arts organization, can be stressful and you receive a lot of, let's say, opinions from the old guard. I've learned what to ignore and what to fight for.
Mya interjects: Let’s not mince words here. The Shakespeare world is white. While many institutions are working hard to change that, it remains very, very white. When I’m consistently one of the only people of any percentage of color in a room, you know you’ve got a problem. I can’t emphasize to you how important it is for me to have discovered Shakespeare in Detroit, a classical arts organization that is not only lead by a woman of color, but whose staff and company are more often than not over half people of color. Keep imitating the action of the tiger, Sam.
I used to love Othello. I still do and I'll probably produce it again soon. But in many ways I get traumatized by it. I often feel like an "only" in my own classical world and the language punches me in the gut nowadays.
Imogen. I live by my own rules. I create what I want to create. I love who and what I love. And even when folks try to take that away from me, I always find my way back. Things always work out in Divine order. I love that woman! I should also say, I identify with Falstaff a bit as well. I am quite sarcastic and silly and I won't turn down a delicious cocktail.
You can find out more about me and my work at shakespeareindetroit.com. We have a lot up our sleeves and that's the best way to stay in touch with us. You can also tweet us at @shakesinthed or me @detroitsamwhite.
(Back to Mya) Sam didn’t even scratch the surface of all the stuff she’s done and is currently doing, so I’m just going to have to trumpet some of her awesomeness here for her.
Sam just directed the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s current production of Twelfth Night, which is running until September 7th.
Last year she was assistant director for the Stratford Festival’s production of The Tempest, and the year before that she was the Nicholson Arts Management Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
So, in case you’ve lost track, that means she’s worked at three of the biggest Shakespeare theatres in North America in the past three years, while simultaneously running Shakespeare in Detroit. NO BIG DEAL.
She’s also on the advisory board for Statera Arts, a foundation working to address gender disparity in the arts.
You can read more about Sam’s journey with Shakespeare in Detroit in this article from Forbes: Is Shakespeare the Key to Detroit’s Recovery? A interview with her also appears in Shakespeare Magazine, coincidentally right before an interview with me. We Michigan Shakespeare artists stick together!
There are also a lot more interviews with Sam, both video and print, on the Shakespeare in Detroit press page.
If you want to be cool, like me, you can support Shakespeare in Detroit on Patreon.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Two of my nearest and dearest Shakespeare friends and mentors: my Shakespeare Fairy Godfather and my indefatigable pocket dramaturg.
Q&A August continues! I first met Kate Powers at the opening reception of the 2016 Shakespeare Theatre Association conference. It was my very first STA conference and I was, needless to say, SUPER NERVOUS about suddenly being in a huge room with hundreds of top-notch Shakespeare experts, artists, administrators, and educators. I felt very much like an impostor and interloper: after all, I was just drawing these stupid little comics, while these people were making Shakespeare come to life, and were changing lives in the process.
I had heard of Kate’s phenomenal work with Rehabilitation Through the Arts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, so I was already suitably intimidated when I was first introduced to her. However, she took one look at my name tag, said “Oh my god, you’re HER”, and then seized me by the arm and proceeded to lead me around the reception, introducing me to all manner of Shakespearean theatre luminaries and instantly incorporating me into the STA community. And that’s pretty much Kate in a nutshell for you: welcoming and supportive, absurdly generous with her time and energy, and never hesitating to help lift people up in any way she can. Over the past several years she has become a wonderful resource, correspondent, and friend, and I’m so excited to share her with you now.
Take it away, Kate!
I am a director, a text nerd, a prison theatre maker. I saw my first production of Shakespeare before anyone had a chance to tell me that this was going to be good for me, or that these people talk funny. I was eight. The play was in a park downtown; we had a picnic and a can of mosquito spray standing by as we watched Petruchio arrive (on a motorcycle, wearing leopard-print hot pants, as it happened) to wed Katharine. I am sure that I missed a lot, but I had a great time.
After a student matinee of my production of Measure for Measure at the Kansas City Rep in 2005, a girl asked at the post-show discussion, with great urgency, if Isabel was going to marry the Duke. When I directed The Winter’s Tale at American Shakespeare Center, I spoke to a lady in the audience who was seeing her first-ever Shakespeare play. She asked me if I had updated the language or if someone else had done it for me. She was stunned when I told her that we had not changed a word. “It’s crystal clear,” she exclaimed. I am all about smashing up the cultural church of Shakespeare and starting the Shakespeare block party.
It’s cheap, but it is textually supported cheap. I laugh every time an actor playing Malvolio reads the letter, “If this fall into thy hand, revolve,” takes a beat, contemplates, and then turns in a circle. It’s not actually what the letter writer means (it means “consider,” essentially), but it doesn’t matter. I think you have written a strip about revolving Malvolios, (Mya interjects: I have!) and I would like someone to start a band called the Revolving Malvolios.
I would probably have to go with Squirrel Butt Romeo.
Mya interjects: Kate is, of course, referring to the immortal anecdote that led to the creation of this comic:
I saw a Czech language production of Hamlet while I was in grad. school. The host at my B&B in Prague strongly discouraged me from going. I think he thought I would be upset when it wasn’t in English. I told him it was okay, that I was fairly familiar with the story. They cast Claudio much younger than I had previously seen. The late king’s much younger brother. He read like an older brother to Hamlet in some ways, and also, he was HOT. I suddenly understood “The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse, / Keeps wassail and the swaggering upspring reels,” much more clearly, and I also could see the appeal, the sexy appeal, the temptation, the need to believe, for Gertrude.
The interpretation that I have seen far too often is the leather-clad Hamlet wielding an AK-47. Just. Don’t.
Mya interjects: OK, I have definitely seen leather-clad Hamlets, but Hamlet wielding an AK-47? What is that??
“It is required you do awake your faith” and “Let be” are perpetually in the front of my consciousness.
Mya interjects: I totally forgot about “Let be”. Is there a more powerful two-word quote in all of Shakespeare?
Right now I hear Sir Thomas More’s “mountainish inhumanity” speech to the rioting mob loudly and insistently:
“Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.”
Which ones haven’t?
Mya interjects: Touché…
I pretty much am Beatrice, with a dash of Paulina. Very smart, very punny, often wielding my words as a weapon, tenacious, determined, protective of those around me, and also afraid of getting hurt, yet determined to speak, to name injustice when I see it. “I care not. It is an heretic that makes the fire.”
Mya interjects: The world needs more Paulinas, and the world needs more Kates.
I am the founder of the Redeeming Time Project. Our name comes from Hal’s speech in I Henry IV, “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill / Redeeming time when men think least I will.” We make theatre with men incarcerated in two Minnesota state prisons. I started doing this work over a decade ago with Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York state. We believe human beings are born inherently good, and we teach critical life skills (such as empathy, critical thinking, communication skills, teamwork, conflict resolution, goal setting, delayed gratification) through making theatre together. At Sing Sing Correctional Facility in 2016, while we were rehearsing Twelfth Night, one of the men said, “Shakespeare gave me words for emotions I didn’t know I had.”
The act of imagination required to play a character can become the spark of compassion that leads to empathy. One can learn empathy through the effort of performing a play, because one must ask, “What is it like to be this character? What is it like to walk in his shoes?” Through rehearsal room disagreements about the interpretation of a scene, or a line, one can learn to tolerate not just different points of view but also ambiguity itself. This newly acquired tolerance and wider understanding of human behavior helps cultivate patience and perspective.
Shakespeare teaches us what it means to be human, in all the nobility as well as all the depravity that it can entail. Again and again, he asks us, “What does it mean to be alive? How should we act? Who am I? What do I love?” Redeeming Time makes Shakespeare accessible to all, restores a voice to the silenced and voiceless, and explores the full complexity of the human condition.
Incarcerated individuals who study and perform Shakespeare challenge. They develop a passion for learning. They explore the full complexity of humanity through Shakespeare, reassessing their past and current choices, as well as their future options, as they do so. Although RTP will work with material written by other playwrights and authors, Shakespeare will always be the firm ground on which we stand.
(Back to Mya) Thanks so much to Kate for taking the time to answer my questions! You can find out more about Kate and her excellent work here:
Plus, you can hear Kate on several episodes of the Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast:
Episode 532: Shakespeare and Trump (also featuring yours truly)
COMING THURSDAY: A fellow Michigander who just happens to be one of my personal Shakespearean superheroes!
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!
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
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).
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."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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!