It’s 400 years since Shakespeare’s First Folio was published. The First Folio being a written collection of the Bard’s works. Without it, says the British Library, performances of such popular plays as The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Macbeth would not be possible. And it’s the enduring cultural significance that allows improv Shakespeare company ShakeItUp to dance with the ideas and language with entertaining incision and fun.
“We use the language and we use the tropes of the characters of Shakespeare. The aim is that we create a new work of Shakespeare from audience suggestions,” actor and filmmaker Caleb Mitchell tells ArtsCulture.
“It’s always very funny, even when we do tragedies.”
In fact, says Caleb, about 60% of requests are tragedies, and they hardly ever get history plays.
The London-based company started around five years ago, when they were in drama school. And they’ve been honing their improv skills ever since. Plus, the hunger for more and varied Shakespeare has increased. Their latest outing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival saw a season of full and sold out shows. And they performed for the first time at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall in May this year ‘under glorious blue skies’.
Along the way, they’ve been building relationships with other improv groups. They hook up with legends of the form Showstoppers, the improvised musical, to refine their improv stagecraft.
“We want to tell stories in a way which is recognisably Shakespearean,” says Caleb. They’ve been praised for the familiarity of echoes of the original works in their pieces, but it isn’t stuck up on being stuffy.
“It’s very accessible, and that’s deliberate, because we want people to enjoy it, even people who perhaps don’t like Shakespeare. We want them to come and see crazy characters. It’s quite fast moving. And hopefully it will give them an appreciation of Shakespeare that they haven’t had before.
“We have taught workshops on how to improvise Shakespeare in loads of different settings, including Pentonville Prison. This often culminates in a performance at the end of the course. It’s incredible to see how Shakespeare and improv can help people to develop social skills and give them confidence to try new things.”
And it all seems rather fun.
“Improv, let alone improv Shakespeare, is the most wonderful experience as a performer,” says Caleb.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. People often ask us, have you planned anything? And we’ve planned absolutely nothing! Nothing at all. So there’s a giddy madness about wanting to go on stage together, work as a team, to tell the story. And that, I think, is unique.
“With improv, you have to embrace that uncertainty and find a way to enjoy it. I think that’s why audiences like it, because they’re constantly surprised. And they can see the actors being surprised as well.”
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