By Joe Prestwich
When I’m not improvising, I spend a lot of my time watching, thinking, and writing about German theatre. That’s odd, you might think, and you’d probably be right. But I’ve learnt so much from my experiences seeing theatre in Germany and in the German-language, and I am particularly fascinated by those rare examples of German-language productions making their way over to Britain.
Some of my earliest experiences of German theatre were productions of Shakespeare. In 2012, as part of the London Olympic Games’ Cultural Olympiad, the Globe Theatre hosted 37 productions of Shakespeare’s plays in 37 different languages – this being the number of plays Shakespeare is credited as writing. As part of this “Globe to Globe” festival, I saw a production of Timon of Athens (Timon aus Athen) by the Bremer Shakespeare Company. And what a revelation.
Sex in pop-up tents. Women frying steaks over on-stage barbecues. A naked Timon running around the stage showing us his … acting chops. Shakespeare’s words were forsaken for something that felt more anarchic, performative, and really live. It felt like anything could happen at any moment. The company reshaped the play to speak directly to the 2008 financial crisis. I was thrilled.
Fast forward four years and I am sat in the Royal Court Theatre at Sloane Square watching a production of Ophelias Zimmer (Ophelias Room), by British director Katie Mitchell. This work has stuck with me for many years. It represents almost the direct opposite of the Bremer show. It re-tells the plot of Hamlet entirely from Ophelia’s perspective, using the information Shakespeare gives us in his text to construct her daily routine. This includes going for walks, going to dinner, receiving flowers and (here comes the modern twist) tapes from Hamlet expressing his feelings for her. These consist mainly of long monologues (go figure), or expletive-ridden insults. It is a play built around the idea of repetition. Ophelia repeats the same actions day after day after day after day after day. And we witness it all. Her routine is broken only by men, intruding into her world and trying to control her. Some critics found this technique “boring”, and maybe it was. But that was part of the point. Ophelia’s life as a woman probably was boring. And if she seems boring, it’s because Shakespeare (as interpreted through Mitchell) made it so. Or, at least, it makes us think twice about women in Shakespeare, and the roles women are given in productions of Shakespeare’s texts. Is Hamlet just really an opportunity for male actors to show the world how good they are? Can we work to change the perception of Shakespeare being a male-dominated domain? I left the theatre shook – and eager to see more productions that not only present Shakespeare in new ways, but also question the very traditions surrounding Shakespeare in performance.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of companies and theatres across the UK doing just that. Just returning to the Globe Theatre under Michelle Terry’s artistic directorship provides an excellent example of how diverse casts and ensembles can be constructed in a setting steeped in tradition. I guess the point I want to make here though, is that there is so much to learn when we see theatre in different languages, and that emerges from performance traditions that differ to those in typically associated with theatre in Britain. We try and do this in ShakeItUp through our international work. We’ve taken part in theatre festivals in Germany and Italy, and each time we were given opportunities to take part in workshops led by artists from all across Europe. We’ve let this work seep into our own rehearsals over the years, and hopefully once international travel is a more viable option, we’ll be bringing our brand of theatre to countries beyond the UK again soon.
With the growth of theatre streaming over the past 12 months, international theatre is more accessible than ever. I thought I knew Shakespeare – until I saw a naked actor yelling his words at me. I’d recommend the experience to everyone!
By Caleb Mitchell
‘You do what?? Wow, I could NEVER do that!’
I get this reaction a lot. Normally it’s from a friend-of-a-friend I’ve just met in a (socially-distanced) pub in Clapham who just cannot believe that anyone would want to be part of an Improvised Shakespeare Company.
And the thing is, I want to tell them, ‘You know what, you’re right. Improv is only for us professionals. You mere mortals can just watch, marvel and laugh. Preferably in all the right places (whenever I’m speaking).’
But the truth is that I believe Improv is for everyone. It’s a joyful, delicious, (sometimes frightening) theatrical adventure that every man, woman and cheeky schoolchild should try at least once.
Improv Is About Teamwork
Improvisation, whether long-form (an entire play) or short-form (standalone scenes) is all about learning to work together as a team.
Let’s go back to the friend-of-a-friend in Clapham for a moment. Why are they so adamant that they couldn’t try Improv?
Well, it probably differs for each person, but I’d suggest many people imagine arriving at an Improv class, being immediately manhandled onto a darkened stage and told to sing a song that rhymes (ABAB is preferred) whilst the rest of us post it to on TikTok for all our mates to have a good laugh.
But Improv done well isn’t about the individual, it’s about learning to work together to create something magical – stirring scenes and captivating characters.
Putting Each Other In The…!
At ShakeItUp we regularly like to ‘put each other in the… (poo)’. We might ask our scene partner to remind us of their family motto in the form of a poem or demand they recite the tale of how they came to own their favourite pair of socks. As a song, naturally.
The audience loves watching them squirm onstage as they consider how they are going to pull this off, all on their own.
But I’m going to let you into a little secret, they’re not really alone. My scene partner knows that I am ready to jump in and help at any moment if they’re struggling.
Make Your Partner Look Good
And that’s because Improv is not about making myself look good, it’s about making my partner look good. It’s about listening. It’s about taking their offers and suggestions as though they are the best ideas ever (and hopefully them doing the same!).
This builds trust and camaraderie. You start to realise that we’re actually all on the same side here. And the results can be spectacular.
The YouTube Dream
You might be thinking, ‘That’s all well and good but I work as an accountant in Brighton, what’s Improv got to do with my day-to-day?’
Let me answer that by asking you a question. When was the last time you failed? And I don’t just mean you forgot to take the bins out, I mean really failed. You had an idea, whether at work or at home, you went at it full tilt… and it bombed.
A few years ago, I started a YouTube channel doing theatre reviews. I had loads of ideas and created a few videos, but what I soon realised was that each video was A LOT of work. I was spending hours recording and editing and I just didn’t have the time.
But I was reluctant to stop. I knew friends had been watching my videos and I didn’t want to admit defeat because I was worried what they would think.
Atychiphobia (try saying that with a mouthful of halloumi) is defined as the fear of failure. In extreme cases we can find ourselves veering away from risk and only attempting things which (we think) are guaranteed to succeed.
At X (formerly Google X) they have a simple goal: to find radical solutions to the world’s biggest problems. They are currently pioneering self-driving cars and whether huge balloons could bring affordable internet to rural communities around the world. The whole mantra of X is that they are a ‘moonshot factory’ (a reference to JFK’s dream to put humans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s).
But what I really love is that they actively reward failure. In fact, according to Astro Teller, Director of X, they applaud, high-five (and give bonuses) to every person on teams who end failing projects. Why? Because X want to encourage innovation and they also want to know as soon as possible whether a project has any chance of succeeding.
So how do you get over the fear of failure? Well, one way is to fail at something! Even if it’s just a small thing. And that’s where Improv comes in. I fail every single week in our rehearsals at ShakeItUp. But I do so gladly (most of the time!) because as a company we celebrate failure. Because in doing so we not only learn how to become better improvisors but we are more willing to take risks and try out new ideas in other areas of life.
Learning to fail...
Okay, so I admit, Improv can be a bit scary. It can feel like you’re willingly hopping out of a plane at 30,000 feet in just your undies.
But trust me, Improv has the potential to change your life. It pushes us to innovate – to fail, mess up and to inexplicably stop speaking mid-sentence and forget where the scene is set (guilty as charged) - but to do it together, working as a team. And in doing so, we will learn a little more about ourselves. We will learn what it feels like to fail.
Remember my YouTube channel? Well, that’s long gone. But what I learnt was that I really enjoyed video production. So I bought some camera equipment and started shooting wedding films. Four films later and I’m still going strong.
So when the pandemic is finally over, I’d urge you to find a local Improv class (or one of our workshops) and give it a go. What have you got to lose?
And who knows, maybe, just maybe you’ll see a ShakeItUp show on the Moon by the end of the 2020s (I’m going to email X about it this afternoon, promise).
‘We fail? But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail.’ – Lady Macbeth, Act I Sc. VII
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this regular blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!