By James Alston
ShakeItUp was born out of a love of Shakespeare’s work, and all of our company members are committed Bard-fans! Today, our James Alston takes us through the three Shakespeare plays that mean the most to him.
To narrow down my favourite Shakespeare plays to just one I think would be an impossible task, so for this blog I had decided to cheat a little and narrow it down to just three.
“Blood will have blood…”
Like most people who went to school in Britain, my first experience of Shakespeare was in the classroom, and although I enjoyed these lessons, I wouldn’t say I was hooked instantly. That was until my first experience of seeing Shakespeare performed. I must have been about thirteen at the time and my Mum (I imagine sensing my timid curiosity for Shakespeare) took me to see a production of Macbeth. I remember it was in a tiny black-box studio in the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, and it was produced by a company involved in outreach work in the local area, with a cast made up of professional actors and members of the local community. It completely gripped me from the start. It was fast paced, it was brutal, it was…thrilling! One of the most exciting things about it was that they had worked with local MCs who would – at certain key points of the play – break into rap, reflecting on Macbeth’s spiral into tragedy. It was an unexpectedly effective means of telling the story and it introduced me to the idea that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be a museum piece: it can, and should, be relevant to now and it should evolve and change. That performance has had more of an enduring impact on me than many shows since; it showed me how exciting Shakespeare can be, and it was the beginning of my fascination.
2. The Tempest:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Quite possibly the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself, The Tempest is a beguiling enigma. Technically one of his “Comedies”, it’s a play that constantly tries to elude strict classification and indeed seems to occupy a genre all of its own. Several interlinking stories are played out on Prospero’s Island: there’s Ferdinand and Miranda’s love tale, Prospero’s story of revenge and eventual forgiveness, the plotting of Dukes Antonio and Sebastian, and of course the comedy plotline of the bestial Caliban and his worship of the drunken Stephano and Trinculo. It has moments of exquisite beauty (“Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises”) and moments of extreme brutality and violence. It has sparked centuries of debate as to its wider themes such as the echoes of colonialism in Prospero and Caliban’s relationship. Whenever you think you’ve nailed down The Tempest, it twists itself into something completely different.
Also, Prospero’s final speech is magnificently poignant. I think it will forever be one of my favourites.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Ok, so this one may actually be my favourite. A mainstay of summer outdoor Shakespeare performances for a very good reason, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about as enchanting as a play can get. The play follows several groups of characters as they each spend a – to put it mildly – rather confusing night in the woods. Joyfully entertaining scenes abound as the audience are drawn into an intoxicating fairy world where all the typical conventions are assurances are turned on their heads. Shakespeare gives us one of his best loved comic fools in the hapless actor Bottom and the fight between the four lovers is so brilliantly crafted it is almost guaranteed to raise the roof in any production. The play’s darker edges, especially in relation to gender politics and sexual violence, are often unfortunately overlooked, but when they are paid attention to they add further layers of richness to this strange and silly tale. It is a play that fills me with the joys of a summer’s day each time I read or watch it.
And that’s it! A very brief tour through three of my favourite Shakespeare plays. We come back to the Bard’s work as a reference point in our ShakeItUp rehearsals. Our shows are not just about sticking some thee’s and thy’s into our dialogue, we try to incorporate the structures, themes and characters that he used into our own improvised plays. In some ways, they are a parody of his work, but it’s not as simple as that. It all comes back to my experience with Macbeth in that studio in Cheltenham, it’s about reinvention, a new way of engaging with that work. Shakespeare never stays still, it is constantly in motion.
By Abigail Clay
Last month we read about ShakeItUp in Pentonville Prison, and one of the positives which came out of our course there was to allow us to get to know a group of people who by definition are removed from society. Stereotypes were challenged and understanding grew.
Another outreach project of ShakeItUp’s is called Shakespeare 21, which is a drama group for adults with Down’s Syndrome based in Tonbridge, Kent. My younger sister, Claire, is one of the participants, and along with her there are several actors who I have known throughout their lives, and some who have known me throughout mine! Thanks to my unique position, I know how false many assumptions about people with a learning disability such as Down’s Syndrome can be. One of the aims of this group is to perform locally, presenting the opportunity for audiences to realise we all have more in common than some may imagine.
In Shakespeare 21 we cover many of the same topics as ShakeItUp - we teach the components required to improvise a Shakespearean-style play. The three genres - tragedy, comedy, history - creating relationships between characters, building a world - Battlefield? Forest? Castle? - and studying Shakespeare’s language to inspire us to make up our own, on the spot. Everyone has different abilities, some happy to fluently reel of Shakespeare’s monologues, others creative in their movement, prowling around as witches or strutting proudly as queens. Even within a group of people who all have a common condition, every personality is unique and necessary to form the whole.
We are lucky to be supported in Shakespeare 21 by several volunteers, but of course there are necessary costs. We are very grateful to those who have supported us so far, including the Tonbridge Lions group who bought us our beautiful new shirts (see below).
We have been busy fundraising, including carol singing and hosting a stall at a local fair. If you are interested in donating to the group to allow us to continue with our work, please contact Elaine on email@example.com. Or, if you know an adult with Down’s Syndrome near Tonbridge who may like to be involved, please point them in our direction!
Shakespeare 21 are very excited to be performing at ShakeItUp’s fundraiser on Friday March 27th for Scotts Project Trust, a local charity. Scotts provides residential care, supported living services and a day centre for people with learning disabilities, helping the service-users to socialise, and develop life skills, independence, and confidence. More details about the event can be found at the end of this post. Several of the members of Shakespeare 21 also attend Scotts Project, so it’s brilliant that they will be able to support the charity by performing at the fundraiser. Luckily, we have a couple more performances out in the community before it comes around, we’ll be glad of the practice! But will it be a comedy, a tragedy, or a history… We won’t know until the night!
I hope you have enjoyed reading about our wonderful group Shakespeare 21. We’d love to read your thoughts in the comments, and you can follow the group on Twitter @shakespeare21I to keep up-to-date with all their latest news.
Now, before you go, get your tickets booked for our fundraiser!
When? Friday March 27th @ 7.30pm
Where? Delarue Hall, Scotts Project, Tonbridge, TN11 9NN
What? A fundraiser for Scotts Project Trust, featuring performances from Shakespeare 21 and ShakeItUp. The ticket price includes these, your supper and a glass of bubbly on arrival!
How much? £35. Remember to bring cash for the raffle, bar, and maybe some Shakespearean themed games…
Sounds amazing! How do I book? Email Elaine (good old Elaine) on firstname.lastname@example.org, and let her know any dietary requirements.
By James Dart
What do Oscar Wilde, Boy George and ShakeItUp Theatre have in common? Apart from being cultural giants, they have all had a stretch in Pentonville Prison. For the past 8 weeks ShakeItUp Theatre has been working with inmates from Pentonville. Our task was simple… take a group of inmates and in 8 weeks prepare them to improvise a 20-minute Shakespearean play in front of a live audience. Challenge accepted!
The idea of improv in prisons isn’t a new one. A number of prisons in California have been doing improv for over 10 years. The combination of risk taking, teamwork and fun inherent in improv has been proven to have a huge positive impact on inmates. Benefits range from reduced re-offending to improved mental well-being.
For the ShakeItUp team this was our first time behind bars. Our only reference points were Shawshank Redemption, Prison Break and a couple of Louis Theroux documentaries, so it was a humbling experience when the white gates clanged shut behind us and we met our team of inmates. They were not hardened, tough or menacing; they were people. They were funny, shy, and understandably a little sceptical about improvising Shakespeare. When asked what they wanted to get out of our time together two themes emerged: “to escape this reality for a while” and “to feel like a person again.” In that moment we realised we had taken on a responsibility far bigger and more important than our usual improvised hilarity.
Prisons are unsurprisingly an oppressive place to be. The walls are white, the uniforms are grey, and the windows are very, very small. However, as we introduced the actors to the core cannon of improv games (one-word story, the question game and even a few games of tig) we discovered that you can find expression and creativity in even the bleakest of settings. As the weeks went by, we saw the actors growing in confidence, playfulness and, most importantly for an improv troupe, in teamwork. The guys picked this up quickly giving each other support and encouragement to make bolder choices and bigger characters. Every week they created scenes which ranged from the side-splittingly funny to the heart-wrenchingly sad.
We learnt a lot from working with the men in Pentonville. Most strikingly we learnt about bravery and generosity. As actors we often talk about making brave choices and decisions. This pales into insignificance compared to the bravery of an actor in the hyper-masculine environment of a prison donning a high-pitched voice and pretending to be a swooning Juliet Capulet. Taking risks pays off in acting. Each of the men we worked with took big risks and reaped the huge rewards of finding new modes of expression, as well as some raucous audience laughs.
In the final week the actors donned the signature ShakeItUp shirts and performed a completely improvised show to a hugely supportive crowd of over 30 people. The title chosen was “The Wizard of Disney Land” and boy was it magical! Packed with spells and lots of laughs the inmates created an incredible show, one that we would have been proud to have performed in any of our normal venues.
As actors we can take for granted the opportunities that we have to make our voices heard. These men are voiceless. Their backgrounds rarely afforded them the opportunity to express themselves using theatre and the arts. It was a great privilege to see these men find wonder in creating art together.
We went into prison with some very strong stereotypes in mind. We expected to find hardened criminals, people who were different to us. What we found was a group of brave and generous men living in difficult circumstances who worked as a team to create a hilarious and beautiful piece of theatre.
Below: sketches of the final performance at Pentonville by artist Lawrence Mathias.
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly 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!