Much Ado about Improv

A Rollins troupe creates eight new Shakespearean comedies from scratch.

Start with a year’s study of Shakespeare and his times, mix in theater and acting classes, add a live audience to throw out improv suggestions, and then blend it together with a hope that all’s well, if it will just end well.

That is essentially the challenge, terror, and delight facing a group of Rollins students who plan to create a new Shakespearean comedy at each of eight performances of The Lost Comedies of William Shakespeare at the Annie Russell Theatre, beginning April 18.

The shows that both parody and honor William Shakespeare will start at 8 p.m. on April 18-19; 4 p.m. on April 20; 8 p.m. on April 23-25; and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on April 26. (The playwright is believed to be born on April 23, 1564.)

The premise of all eight productions is that a group of Elizabethan actors, known as the King’s Men, find themselves waiting for their playwright to arrive with his latest unseen comedy. Suddenly, they receive word that the man, Shakespeare, has died. (His actual date of death is April 23, 1616). Still, the show must go on, so the band of actors turns to the audience for help.

What results is a mingling of modern attitudes and Elizabethan styles, plus a few unusual situations. “Don’t be surprised to see a woman portraying a misogynist male.” 

Associate Professor of Theater David Charles, who directs and performs in the productions, said the Rollins troupe faces a task perhaps unlike any other in theater. It seems daunting enough to improvise jokes and modern song parodies on the spot. But it’s quite another to improvise sonnets in the Elizabethan style.

“It’s humbling,” Charles says. “There will be moments of great finesse mixed in with some fumbles.” 

Despite an occasional error in these improvised comedies, Charles promises that the audiences will be entertained and astonished. Imagine, he said, about 15 student actors moving on and off the stage, wondering whether they will figure out how to get to the end of another unrehearsed scene and doing it as the audience likes it.

However, that tension is fine with Charles and his students. “It bonds that audience to that cast on that one night.” And just as in the works of the Immortal Bard, the student productions may be “bawdy and profound, brilliant and uneven.”

The idea for the performances stems from Charles, who has a background in both Shakespeare and improv. The plan was fleshed out as part of the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship program in which the participants studied play structure and steeped themselves in English history of the late 1500s and early 1600s.

That large fund of knowledge will come in handy for the actors as they create characters, scenes, and situations based on audience suggestions. Impromptu ideas also create huge on-the-spot demands for those designing sets, putting together costumes, running lights, and making sound effects.

“It’s a little bit of a pressure point,” Charles says, adding he is glad for the assistance of Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Jen-Scott Mobley who filled a variety of duties as dramaturge.

The unpredictable shows may seem like a lot of madness for the actors to put themselves through, but there’s method to it, as well. Charles believes he’s not only helping to create another generation of actors, but he and others in the department hope they are preparing the next generation of theatergoers—those who love and appreciate live performances.

Allowing the audience to help shape these plays will create strong memories in spectators, many of whom may become fans of live theater. “There are few places in our world where you can experience an event in real time and leave feeling that you are more connected to others,” Charles says. “Improv does that to the nth degree.”

For tickets, please contact the the Annie Russell Theatre box office at 407-646-2145 or online at annierussell.secure.force.com/ticket