February 24, 2021

Petoskey To Host Improvised Shakespeare Company

By Kristi Kates | Jan. 28, 2017


The stage is empty, save for a chair, a small table and a telephone.
The PHONE rings.
BRENDAN DOWLING walks across from stage left and picks up the phone. It’s a NEWSPAPER EDITOR wanting to hear his story.
DOWLING settles into the chair with a freshly peeled banana and begins to speak.

This could be the beginning of any night at a performance of The Improvised Shakespeare Company, the unique Chicago-based take on William Shakespeare’s stage plays and writings that requires quick wit from its actors and participation from its spectators (well, perhaps minus the telephone, a convenience of modern times.) Then again, these Elizabethan-inspired performances could start with anything, really: a shark attack, the three witches from Macbeth or, as popped up at a recent show, “The Real Housewives of Windsor.” 

Each performance by The Improvised Shakespeare Company begins with the audience. “We don’t know what the play will be when we step on stage – we get the title of each night’s play directly from the audience,” explained Dowling, actor and associate director with the company. “We just ask them to yell things out, we pick a title and then we act the entire thing out as if it’s an actual Shakespearean play, with Shakespearean archetypes and characters and language. It’s funny and goofy as much as it’s improv, but in the end, it’s also a love letter to Shakespeare.”

Executing these performances is definitely tougher than this talented team of actors makes it look. Not only do they have to have a working knowledge of all of Shakespeare’s plays and verbiage, but they also have to have exceptional improv ability so that they can take often archaic wordplay (think “thees,” “thous” and “forsooths”), infuse it into modern situations and have it all make sense.

“I started with the company in 2008,” Dowling said. “I’d heard about it from my friend Joey Bland – he was telling me about this new show he was in and how it was his favorite thing that he’d ever been part of. I, of course, got jealous right away,” he laughed. “And now I’m thrilled to be part of it, too. (Bland is also still with the company.) It’s actually really satisfying to improv a show that feels like legitimate acting work – to ‘write’ it as you go, even in your mind, and act it out at the same time is so much fun, and I get to play with such amazingly talented people. When everything goes together well on stage, it’s like a magic trick.”

The Improvised Shakespeare Company does five shows a week in Chicago in the spring and summer and tours throughout the fall and winter around the world. “I feel like I’m performing a lot,” said Dowling. The group has also started doing festival performances, proving to be a popular draw on stage at big-name concert events like the Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Bumbershoot festivals.

To keep up with the material and make sure they can “stay in the language” no matter where they are, the whole cast works continuously to improve. “In our rehearsals early on, especially, we’d read the plays all together and take quizzes,” Dowling said. “We still read as much as we can independently – it’s not uncommon to see one of us reading one of the plays while we’re traveling.”

Fortunately, Dowling pointed out, Shakespeare invented words all the time – many of which have made their way into today’s popular language. “So even if you do mess up, we don’t treat it as a mistake,” he said. “It’s more like an opportunity we can twist into something interesting!”

But still, considering the speed and complexity of their performances, how do these ambitious actors keep the whole thing from derailing? “We all have an agreement that we’re going to play as if it really were the 1590s and we’re really in a play that Shakespeare wrote,” Dowling explained. “We all stay in that mindset, so even if we do get derailed, it can still fit. Let’s say if your character gets unexpectedly killed halfway through – well, that fits right in with Julius Caesar. 

“Plus, you can’t really out-crazy Shakespeare,” he laughed.

The Improvised Shakespeare Company will be improvising at the Crooked Tree Arts Center Theater in Petoskey on February 4 at 7:30pm. For tickets and more information, visit Crookedtree.org or call (231) 347-4337.


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