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ShakeItUp: The Improvised Shakespeare Show - Interview

After a sell-out run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe followed by a UK tour, ShakeItUp Theatre will bring their witty improv extravaganza ShakeItUp: The Improvised Shakespeare Show to the Turbine Theatre this Autumn. Using improvised verse, song, dance, fights, and more, the team combine the most exciting and absurd elements of the Bard’s works with audience suggestions (and the company’s overactive imaginations) to create an all new Shakesperean epic live on stage, with no pre-set characters or plots – and no room for error!

Ahead of performances at The Turbine Theatre we caught up with some of the team to discuss the show.

Where did your journey with the troupe begin?
I founded ShakeItUp nearly 6 years ago. The idea came from my wife, I had been saying how much I enjoyed improv and Shakespeare and she said, “why dont you combine them?” she even came up with the name there and then. I was just graduating from drama school and together with a group of friends we decided to form the company. To begin with we rehearsed in my kitchen. Our first show was above a pub in Wandsworth and we had to cable-tie a load of shipping pallets together to form a stage, it was a bit of a health hazard to be honest. 

Photo by Abby Forman 

Where did you first find a love for Shakespeare?
I grew up just down the road from Stratford Upon Avon and we often went on school visits and trips during the Summer holidays so I think he was always there in the background as an influence. The first Shakespeare I remember seeing was an open air performance of the Tempest at the side of the sea in Dartmouth (Devon). I remember watching Prospero and Ariel's scenes and hearing the waves crashing around us and the seagulls crying it was really incredible. 

Do you have a favourite Shakespeare piece or quote?
It is very hard to choose as his plays contain the whole range of human experience, from love to loss to jealousy and friendship. If I had to choose it would be the lovers scenes from Midsummer Nights Dream, people are falling in and out of love in an instant its bonkers, and yet for those characters it is absolutely deadly serious, it is hilarious and tragic at the same time.   

Again it is hard to pick a favorite quote out of so many good ones, but the one that comes to mind quite often is Macbeth: ”I am in blood stepped in so far.” In that instant when I am standing off stage about to go on without a plot, a character or any idea about what is going to happen I sometimes think to myself, how have I got here?! 

How do you approach the improvisation as a performer?
I always start from a position of how can I best serve the story and the team. As a company we do want to make the audience laugh but more importantly we want to tell a really compelling story with believable characters. We want people to feel like they have seen a new work of Shakespeare that they have helped to create. If we can make the audience laugh, gasp  and cry in the same show we have done our job.

Our mission as a company is to make Shakespeare accessible to all whether someone hated Shakespeare at school or has seen every play 20 times we hope there will be something in our show for everyone and for those unsure about the bard we hope to inspire people to give his work another go. 

What is it the moments leading up to a performance like? Are you fizzing with ideas or do things just come to you in the moment?
We have nothing pre-prepared or pre-planned in our shows so it is really exciting! Starting one of our shows is like being in a football team and not knowing which position you will be playing, who the opponent is, or whether we will in fact be playing tennis! The only thing we have going on stage is our team mates and our knowledge of Shakespeare. It’s about the most fun thing you can do on stage.

Is it hard to throw away ideas when you know they work?
It can be, but that unexpectedness is where the joy is. I have walked on stage at the start of a show ready to play a mighty king or general and deliver a killer opening monologue when someone else comes on and calls me “wet-nurse” or “friar.” You have to be ready to change direction very quickly in that moment. More often than not though I find the other persons idea is more interesting and fun. 

What has been the highlight of your time performing with the production so far and how do you reflect on the Edinburgh Fringe?
On stage it has to be performing at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall earlier this year. We had huge crowds, the weather was incredible and there were dolphins swimming in the sea behind us, it was pretty magical, and a long way  from our first performance on cobbled together shipping pallets! 
Off stage the best moment has to be the final performance from our series of workshops at Pentonville Prison. We ran a 10 week course with inmates teaching them improv and Shakespeare skills, at the end of the 10 weeks the guys did their own improvised Shakespeare show to other inmates and their families. It was absolutely incredible to see them perform together.

Edinburgh was brilliant, it surpassed all expectations, we had some incredible audiences and some great reviews we are very excited to go back!

If your life was a Shakespeare play, what would it be called?
I think it already is… The Comedy of Errors  

What keeps you inspired as a creative?
Watching new productions and finding new practices to explore. As a company we are always looking for new things to enhance our practice. We try and draw from a wide pool. We have recently been working with a company in Frankfurt, Germany who are absolutely brilliant at physical theatre and story telling. Their director doesn't speak a word of English but our company picked up so much incredible stuff from 3 days of workshops, it is amazing what opens up when you take away one form of communication. 

What do you hope an audience takes away from seeing Shake It Up?
First and foremost we want our audiences to have a good time and to feel they have helped create a hilarious and yet compelling new Shakespeare play. More broadly we want to engage people with Shakespeare in a new way. Shakespeare is often put on a pedestal or treated like an intellectual exercise. We want to change that. His work is bonkers, there are faries falling in love with donkeys, there are people being baked into cakes, battles, love, there is everything! We try and distil all that madness, beauty and raw emotion into our shows to hopefully inspire people to engage with Shakespeare's plays.

Shake It Up: The Improvised Shakespeare Show runs at The Turbine Theatre from Tuesday 31st October until Saturday 4th November 2023. Tickets are available from the-improvised-shakespeare-show

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