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How to improvise a wildly entertaining new Shakespeare play every night

The Improvised Shakespeare Company has five actors conjure up a completely new Elizabethan play from scratch, complete with lovers, dukes and rhyming couplets

From left: Blaine Swen, Ross Bryant and Joey Bland of the Improvised Shakespeare Company. (Jill Petracek/Improvised Shakespeare Company)
7 min

The Improvised Shakespeare Company begins every show by asking the audience for the title of a new play they’d like to see. On Sunday afternoon, the loudest person in the room screamed, “Does This Look Infected?”

In the few seconds that it took Ross Bryant to step forward on the Kennedy Center stage to recite the play’s prologue, his mind turned to a particularly Shakespearean form of sepsis — love. So he began spinning couplets on the injury from Cupid’s arrow:

But aye, indeed, as he doth draw that bow in churlish finger

Aye, sometimes that wounded heart — that wound begins … to linger

Then the troupe was off on a 90-minute Grecian tale of mismatched and long-lost lovers, with mentions of “pus” and “fistula” and a reference to the Dave Matthews Band. Such is the unique magic of this show, in which five actors use the audience suggestion to conjure up a wildly entertaining Shakespeare-style play from scratch, with each embodying multiple characters, melding comedy and tragedy, and, yes, rhyming many of their lines. How is such a thing possible?

Blaine Swen started the troupe in 2005 in Chicago while getting his doctorate in philosophy at Loyola University, and it has grown to become “one of the country’s elite improv companies,” as the New York Times put it. For the four years preceding the pandemic, ISC played five times a week to packed houses at iO Theater in Chicago, where it’s finally returning in January.

Some of its performers take the show to cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, where the two-week run at the Kennedy Center ends Sunday. Swen aspires to a long New York run and is pitching a television special. He started the group with all men, to evoke an Elizabethan boy band, but added women as companies proliferated.

In a group interview after Sunday’s show, Swen admits that first-time audience members are typically dragged along by insistent companions. As Bryant adds, “To a comedy nerd, Improvised Shakespeare Company sounds like cringe and run.” But many come back for their second, fifth or 20th show.

The humor often comes from the clash of florid language and contemporary references. A year ago, an audience member suggested the title “Taylor’s Version,” referring to the albums that Taylor Swift had rerecorded. The play centered on Talia, who wrote songs about her ex-boyfriends on the lute. The man who pined for her asked a tailor to create an outfit to make him look like the duke she was being forced to marry. At the happy end, the wedding officiant declared they would “ever ever ever be together.”

Lots of Bernie and Trump title suggestions popped up circa 2016. In one basketball-themed show, the cast managed to mention every NBA team. Through these seemingly frivolous details, Swen says, “they’re having kind of the experience of being an actual groundling in Shakespeare’s time.” The playwright would drop allusions to Elizabethan politics that are lost on us today. “Shakespeare’s audience got it right away. They were laughing and raucous and loving it.”

“Seinfeld” actor Jason Alexander saw the group at a benefit and “lost my mind. And I also thought, ‘There must be a gimmick. They must have preplanned some of this,’” he says. Later, he was a guest performer and confirmed that it was all made up on the spot.

Patrick Stewart has also guest-performed, and wrote in an essay for American Theatre magazine that “it became clear to me there was only one thing to do: listen, Listen, LISTEN. Simply the fundamental element of all good acting.”

There are other rules of thumb. The prologue is usually followed by three scenes setting up the main characters, then a group scene with a song. Performers have to locate the core of any well-drawn character: What do they want? (Usually to love or kill someone.) How will they get it? What stands in their way? An actor might enter a scene with a posture that conveys high or low status, to signal who they might be.

If a character’s goal lacks an obstacle, they’ll quickly need a scene to create one. “It has more legs if it’s generated by other characters wanting things,” Swen says, “not just ‘I want to marry Juliet and Juliet’s 100 miles away.’ It’s ‘I want to marry Juliet, but her father wants her to marry someone else.’”

How do theaters entice new audiences with Shakespeare? There’s the rub.

Over the years, the troupe has added more emotion, to help make it less parody and more love letter. They allow the laughs to stop as one performer takes time to ponder, say, the fleeting nature of youth. In conventional improv, murdering your scene partner is bad manners. In this show, murdering your scene partner is done emphatically.

In “very few other improv shows I’ve been in are the people in the audience really invested by an improvised scene’s love story,” says Bryant. “Or cheering when someone comes back,” says Greg Hess. “Or screams when you kill somebody,” says Joey Bland. (Full disclosure, I am friends with Bland’s brother.)

The actors’ training regimen has involved audio versions, movie adaptations, vocabulary quizzes, translation drills and even discussions of Plato’s “Republic” to enrich their themes and metaphors.

Asher Perlman, a New Yorker cartoonist and writer for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” says that when he was performing with ISC, he would practice rhyming while walking to the theater: “I would look at something in the street, like street, even, defeat, complete, neat, and then look up and see a billboard, floored, cord.”

When you first do the show, he adds, “you can feel your brain sifting through every word in the dictionary. Once you’ve done it enough, you’ve rhymed enough words that you have your own internal database. There are only so many words that rhyme with love, like glove, above, shove.”

ISC isn’t the only group to come up with the Shakespearean concept. The Soothplayers puts on “Completely Improvised Shakespeare” in Australia. In 1999, LA’s Impro Theatre began “Shakespeare UnScripted,” which now starts with the conceit that the audience is at an Italian restaurant where the waiters are an amateur troupe.

The U.K.-based Impromptu Shakespeare passes out ping-pong balls with tropes written on them, asks the audience to throw them into an actor’s oversized pants, and picks out four to incorporate. “We’re all pretty well practiced at metaphor — going, ‘is not a house like a tree’ and then exploring why that metaphor works,” says group member James Whittaker. “And justification is a big thing in improv. It makes you say a thing, and you work out why you said it afterward.”

In ISC’s “Does This Look Infected?” on Sunday, a Grecian lover played by Brendan Dowling made the offhand comment, “I have suffocated the very mailbox of Phoebe’s home with the parchments of my poesy, and she has said, ‘Stop it. I am missing important documentation.’” In the next scene, Swen picked up on the suggestion and had his Phoebe search in vain for her tax bill, prompting the collector to appear and threaten execution.

Backstage before every show, the five actors turn to each partner and say, “I’ve got your back.”

“And they really do,” Alexander says. “If you go out there and you make a mistake, you go down the wrong road or you try something that doesn’t work, they save you and they make it work.”

And the Bard himself is unpredictable already, Bryant points out, before citing moments from memory: “Cymbeline” has Jupiter enter astride an eagle. “Henry VI, Part 2” has two severed heads kissing. “There’s no image more twisted, violent, weird, strange, discordant, odd, surreal that we could make up,” he says, “that’s not in these plays.”