Shakespeare without SHAKESPEARE:
The Improvised Shakespeare Company

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2012, Volume 11, Issue 2


Matt Fotis
Albright College

Shakespeare and popular culture have a long and complicated relationship. Shakespeare is no longer isolated in academies and on the "proper stage." He is appearing more and more, and in more and more diverse ways. We see him on stage, on film, and in advertisements. His name is evoked in politics, romance, and novels (and romance novels). Shakespeare tourism, folklore, and mythology have become a part of our cultural and national identities. This intricate marriage, and the ways in which popular culture constructs, contests, and perpetuates Shakespeare’s cultural authority and meaning have become important questions in Shakespearian studies. As Robert Shaugnessy argues, Shakespeare and pop culture have gone from a periphery concern to “one which is making an increasingly significant contribution to our understanding of how Shakespeare’s works came into being, and of how and why they continue to exercise the imaginations of readers, theatergoers, viewers and scholars worldwide” (1). Quite simply, Shakespeare’s relationship to popular culture matters.

One of the more interesting contemporary Shakespop examples is the Chicago group The Improvised Shakespeare Company (ISC). Douglas Lanier argues that our ideas and notions about Shakespeare are constantly being shaped and reformed through popular appropriations. As Lanier argues, Shakespeare in pop culture is “an important means by which notions about Shakespeare’s cultural significance [can be] created, extended, debated, revised, and renewed, not only parodied or critiqued” (19-20).  As a result, many contemporary appropriations struggle both to lay claim to and contest Shakespeare’s authority. Contemporary uses of Shakespeare, according to Diana Henderson, not only “remake him in our own image…but they also teach us to see that image and the past anew” (Collaborations 2). Like many other appropriations, collaborations, and adaptations, the ISC reveals current attitudes toward and the relationship between popular culture and Shakespeare.
In order to examine in some small way the relationship between Shakespeare and popular culture, and the ways in which pop culture constructs, contests, and uses Shakespeare, I will be investigating the ISC. I will be analyzing their relationship to Shakespeare and the ways in which they use Shakespeare in performance to both reify and contest his cultural authority. How do cultural appropriations such as the ISC frame the way that Shakespeare is viewed in contemporary culture? I will briefly explore Shakespeare in popular culture to provide a framework before more fully exploring the history and structure of the group. I will also be analyzing several performance examples, and of course discussing the ways in which an improvised company negotiates the most sacred of all Shakespearian issues: language.

Although most associate Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary culture with high art that primarily appeals to a highbrow audience, that impression was not always the case. His work has undergone a long and complicated shift from a popular playwright to an icon for cultural supremacy, and often times has even simultaneously been a symbol for both high and low. Douglass Lanier argues that “Shakespeare’s special status in the literary canon springs from a complex history of appropriation and reappropriation, through which his image and works have been repeatedly recast to speak to the purposes, fantasies, and anxieties of various historical moments” (21). We need only look at the performance history of a play like Othello to understand the direct relationship between Shakespeare and the times.

So how did the provincial playwright who created John Falstaff become a symbol for the cultural elite? The simple answer is the printing press, but the more interesting answer is popular culture, and both play a significant role in the ISC’s relationship to the Bard. This essay cannot and will not attempt to outline the complex and varied transformation in detail, but a basic understanding is necessary to help understand his current (and past) relationship to popular culture.  While it might seem strange to contemporary audiences for Shakespeare citations to pop up in Star Trek, The Cosby Show, and on bar napkins, his place in popular culture is a natural one that dates back to the seventeenth century.

When Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660, one of the first things he did was to end the eighteen year official ban on theater by issuing two patents for plays, which among other things, complicated Shakespeare’s relationship to popular culture. According to Joseph Donohue, “perhaps with the Puritans’ bias against stage plays in mind, Charles enjoined Killigrew and Davenant to avoid works containing ‘profanation and scurrility,’ choosing instead entertainments which ‘might serve as moral instruction in human life’” (4). Shakespeare was one of the playwrights whose work was allowed on the stage, instantly aligning him with the elite, but this alignment only came about because of the political and cultural climate. The 1737 Licensing Act created a further split between the legitimate and popular stage. Along with a changing aesthetic, the censorship forced companies (both legitimate and popular) to give a different shape to his works resulting in numerous revisions and adaptations. The popular stage became the outlet for cultural critics, gradually introducing Shakespeare as a means to comment on and criticize issues of a cultural, political, historical, and social origin, while the more far-reaching legitimate stage further elevated and celebrated Shakespeare’s artistic genius.

David Garrick’s Stratford Jubilee of 1769 provides another example of popular culture influencing Shakespeare’s cultural positioning. The Jubilee, according to Werner Habicht, “established panegyric and quasi-religious rites for paying tribute to Shakespeare. Subsequent cultic commemorations strove to enact - both theatrically and verbally - the poet’s apotheosis, praising his godlike creativity and the universal appeal of his immortal works” (441). Habicht goes on to note that the “performances of his plays were another matter; these were considered to be - if not altogether unfit for the limitations of the theatre - in need of rearrangement, expurgation, refinement, and improvement, especially if more-or-less popular audiences were to be reached” (441). Aside from the demonstration of the split between Shakespeare on the page (the artistic genius) and Shakespeare on the stage (the popular playwright), it is important to remember that Garrick’s Jubilee came at the end of the Seven Years War, and Shakespeare's work was seen as “an antidote to the tyranny of French culture” (Habicht 442). Part of his “godlike creativity” then can be attributed to his relationship to British politics and popular culture.

Likewise, Shakespeare was wildly popular in nineteenth century America. As Lawrence Levine notes, “Shakespeare was presented as part of the same milieu inhabited by magicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, minstrels, and comics. He appeared on the same playbills and was advertised in the same spirit” (23). However, Levine is quick to clarify that “this does not mean that theatergoers were unable to make distinctions between Shakespearean productions and the accompanying entertainment. Of course they were. Shakespeare, after all, was what most of them came to see. But it was a Shakespeare presented as part of the culture they enjoyed, a Shakespeare rendered familiar and intimate by virtue of his context” (23). His plays were often either a vehicle for a star such as Edwin Booth or presented as bloody spectacles, in many ways not too far from the way they are often presented today, particularly on film. Shakespeare’s popularity and stage aesthetic led the elite, including John Quincy Adams, to try to “protect” Shakespeare (and assert their own cultural supremacy in a young nation still forming its own artistic and cultural hierarchy) by pointing to the text as the real Shakespeare. Like many before and since, Adams distinguished “between ‘the true Shakespeare’ he read in his study and ‘the spurious Shakespeare often exhibited upon the stage’” (Levine 73). The popular culture war was well under way.

As the above demonstrates, the printing of his plays also greatly influenced Shakespeare’s cultural role. The tension between the page and the stage has perhaps been the greatest contributor to Shakespeare’s paradoxical relationship to popular culture. Printed plays increased access to Shakespeare’s work, but also helped establish his “literary identity,” which led to the deification of his works.  While the printing of his plays helped further the divide between high and low, his plays in print did not immediately transform Shakespeare’s cultural authority. It wasn’t until Romantic and twentieth century critics and academics began writing about Shakespeare that he became entrenched as a literary genius. As W.B. Worthen notes, the rise of print as the prevailing mode for disseminating dramatic writing assured “the literary identity of Shakespeare and the primacy of fundamentally literary ways of calibrating page and stage…not least by the now commonsense understanding that reading guarantees the rich, ambiguous multiplicity of Shakespeare, while the theater can only illustrate a single ‘derivative’ reading" (58-59). One result of this academic and critical tradition (what some call Bardolatry) can be seen in the immense success and popularity of Harold Bloom’s unabashed celebration of Shakespeare as an artistic genius in 1998’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

Bloom’s book is an interesting study for our purposes. Bloom argues for the brilliance of Shakespeare, positing that Shakespeare “is not only in himself the Western canon; he has become the universal canon” (17). Bloom asserts that Shakespeare’s genius will always keep him perched above, yet Bloom partially makes his case by demonstrating Shakespeare’s mass appeal and influence. He states Shakespeare “extensively informs the language we speak, his principal characters have become our mythology, and he, rather than his involuntary follower Freud, is our psychologist" (17). For Bloom, Shakespeare is the pinnacle of culture because of his ability to connect with the masses. Here we again see the contradiction inherent in Shakespeare (and Bloom); he is at once the marker of high culture because of his ability to connect with low or popular culture.

This contradiction has led to one of the many paradoxes of Shakespeare, but also illuminates his unique cultural position. His plays are accessible to everyone, high and low, at once offering a standard of culture in the poetry of his plays (the page) and a visual spectacle through the performance of his work (the stage). This combination is one of the things that makes Shakespeare’s plays so fascinating. As Henderson notes of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, what makes them great is “their ability to address an audience hungry for words as performance" ("From Popular" 18). Shakespeare’s ability to bridge the gap between page and stage, even as parties on both sides try to claim him for their own, has historically left him balancing between high and popular culture.

As the above examples demonstrate, Shakespeare and popular culture are not in opposition, and the relationship is vitally important to understanding Shakespeare. As Lanier and others have argued, popular culture and societal views have always shaped ideas and notions about Shakespeare. He has been refigured and repurposed throughout history to meet the specific needs of the time, the changing interpretations of Shylock, Prospero, and Caliban serving as examples. As a result, Shakespop not only works to appropriate Shakespeare and place him within contemporary culture, but also works to preserve Shakespeare’s cultural authority. Therefore, investigating a group like the ISC, a group that celebrates Shakespeare’s language in performance while completely throwing out the actual language (i.e. the text), can give us a deeper understanding of what Shakespeare means to contemporary culture, and how that meaning is created.

The mixture of Shakespeare and improv at first seems like an odd marriage, yet when we consider the artistic process, they actually blend nicely. Shakespeare in his time was a popular form of entertainment, more closely associated with bear baiting than opera. Likewise, improvisational theater is a pop art, traditional theater’s unacknowledged bastard child. Furthermore, both rely on collaboration. As Henderson notes, collaboration “lies at the heart of the artistic process, both modern and early modern, more accurately capturing the practice of Shakespeare and his inheritors than does the notion of isolated genius" (Collaborations 2). Shakespeare had many collaborators, including John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, and others. There perhaps is no more collaborative contemporary art form than improvisation, which relies on an ensemble to create a spontaneous performance solely by relying on each other.

One of the foundational texts of the genre is Charna Halpern’s 2006 book Art by Committee. The book is a how-to manual for long form improvisation and extols the virtues of collaboration and its central place in improvisation. An interview reprinted in the book with Del Close, the father of long form improv, in which he extols the virtues of collaboration, illuminates the creative process of improv: "I wanted to do a show where we could create art by committee. I really hate it when I run into someone who says, ‘Well, you can’t think as well as a group as you can as an individual. Art is an individual undertaking, so you might as well not even try.’ No! Art is possible by committee. Basically all you need is some structure, traffic patterns, game rules, and some kind of image of what it is you want to do…What the audience laughs at - and indeed will cheer at - are the moments of discovery - moments of connection - where the art by committee - where the group brain - really does start functioning. We see amazing kinds of communication going on between people" (qtd. in Halpern 8).

Tina Fey, who trained at iO and The Second City in improvisation, commented on using the collaborative nature of improvisation as a way to write: “I’m always surprised when I meet someone who thinks that sitting and writing is the only way of creating [material].  It’s like meeting someone who thinks that in-vitro fertilization is the only way to make a baby.  You want to say, ‘No, there’s this whole other way of doing it that’s natural and sometimes pleasurable’” (qtd. in Libera 139). As Henderson argues, “the magic of creativity…is a social event, even when a genius is in the room" (Collaborations 7). In many ways then, improv is utilizing a similar creative process, albeit taken to a further extreme.

The ISC begin by asking the audience for a title of a play that has yet to be written, and then the players create a fully improvised two-act play in Elizabethan style. Chicago Tribune critic Kerry Reid noted that the mixture of Shakespeare and improv results in “a delightful evening that celebrates the best of both iambics and long-form improv.” Named the “Best Improv Group” of 2009 by The Chicago Reader, The ISC is the brainchild of Blaine Swen. He began his improvised experiment in Los Angeles at iO West with the group Backstreet Bards. In 2000, the group performed in improv performances known as cage matches, where two groups face off with competing twenty minute performances. The group was an instant sensation winning ten consecutive matches. Their success forced them out of the cage match (after ten consecutive wins a group is required to retire from competition), but opened other doors. As Swen notes, “the audiences had grown so large that they offered us a regular Friday night spot. So we became the Spontaneous Shakespeare Company at iO West" (qtd. in Sharbaugh). The company was relatively short lived, however, and Swen left Los Angeles in 2001 to come to Loyola University in Chicago to study for a graduate degree in philosophy. It wasn’t until 2005 that Swen brought the improvised Bard back to the stage. Along with a group of fellow improvisers, he produced a show at Donny’s Skybox at The Second City. Audiences again began clamoring for more. Charna Halpern caught wind of the group and brought them to iO where they quickly became a mainstay, performing twice every Friday night since 2006.
The Improvised Shakespeare Company, however, is not a typical improv group. They perform in tunics and speak in iambic pentameter, but like many improv groups that have distinguished themselves, they are dedicated to the craft - in this case to Shakespeare’s work - and that dedication sets them apart from others. If improv pioneer Del Close wanted improvisers to play to the top of their intelligence, Swen and the ISC have taken it one step further. They aren’t content with parodying Shakespeare by simply peppering the language with "thees" and "thous." Instead of trying to recreate a comedic burlesque of Shakespeare’s plays, the ISC attempts to create original work informed by Shakespeare. A recent performance, “Two Many Dudes to Remember,” (titles are given by the audience), featured several Shakespearian tropes and themes, including royal marriage and crown succession, mistaken identity, a twin brother and sister separated by time and circumstances, cross dressing and swapped identities, forbidden love, a group of players performing a play within a play, a massive death scene, sexual innuendo with both bawdy and metaphoric language, homoerotic sexual innuendos, an old crone with mystical powers, and in true Shakespearian comedic tradition the play ended with a marriage as well as a trademark rhyming couplet. But the ISC is not trying to recreate Shakespeare or simply show off how many references they can cram into one performance. The group always strives to make the material fresh and original; “we really try to create an original play,” Swen says (qtd. in Sharbaugh).
One of the ways in which the group avoids simple parody is through rigorous study. The group meets regularly to discuss Shakespeare’s plays and other works, immersing themselves in the language, which, Swen says, becomes second nature. In an article by Nelson Wyatt, Swen likens the process to reading Mark Twain: "when you put the book down you sort of think with a southern accent…If you read Shakespeare and you put it down, you sort of start thinking with ‘thees’ and thous.’ So in order to make sure we’re staying true to the form, we constantly read Shakespeare and keep our noses in the text so that when we put it down it’s fresh and we can jump up and just start speaking with a sort of Elizabethan language" (qtd. in Wyatt).

They do not limit their studies to Shakespeare. Swen steeps his players in Elizabethan drama and culture as well. The performers study plays and films, attend Renaissance Faires, hold seminars with local scholars, and take vocabulary and history quizzes. The group even spent several weeks reading and discussing Plato’s Republic. They meet regularly to rehearse, but unlike most improv rehearsals they dedicate the first hour to lecture and discussion. These forums, Swen says, have contributed to making their improv deeper and richer. It also has made their humor work on two different intellectual levels. Their facility with the language obviously improves, as does their sense of Shakespearian plots, characters, themes, and archetypes. They are able more artfully to infuse the bawdy with the profound. Their study also has helped them become “better listeners with richer reactions to discoveries within scenes. But most importantly, [they] continue to have more and more fun” (Heisler). The ISC has taken the concept of slow comedy and playing to the top of one’s intelligence to new levels.

These intellectual discussions have an impact on the performance in several ways. Performer Thomas Middleditch credited the forums for giving his improv a sharp intellectual edge and greater emotional complexity and depth. He remembers a performance in which he was playing the son of a bloodthirsty queen, “and I had to kill someone else to satisfy her bloodlust. At the end, I stabbed her. People gasped. He [Swen] and I took that moment, no jokes, just, you know, acted” (qtd. in Heisler). The group’s dedication to knowledge illuminates their performance and serves to support a learned approach to Shakespeare more often found in English departments than in improv theaters.
Since most readers probably have not seen the ISC, let me briefly describe a performance I attended: “Two Many Dudes to Remember” (9 October 2009). The all male company took the stage while punk music filled the theater. The players were dressed in faux Elizabethan tunics, contemporary dress pants rolled to the knee, dress socks, and gym shoes. This mixture of past and present, high and low immediately sets the tone for the performance. It is apparent right away that notions of highbrow and inaccessible Shakespeare should be left at the door. Their infusion is immediately apparent, setting a tone not only of revelry and modernity, but also of reverence. This mood is further reinforced during Swen’s introduction when he announces the group will perform a world premiere Elizabethan play, and “we’ll do it all using the styles, the themes, and the language of the immortal Bard, William Shakespeare.” When Swen mentions Shakespeare’s name, the entire company bow their heads for a moment of reverential silence.

This moment of solemnity works to both subvert and assert Shakespeare’s status as the ultimate symbol of high art. The audience generally responds to this display with laughter. Their laughter is an acknowledgment of society’s Bardolatry, but more importantly by acknowledging this viewpoint at the very beginning audiences can drop any preconceived notions, fears, or anxieties about Shakespeare. The humorous moment allows audience members to poke fun at their own feelings toward Shakespeare and the assumption that if they do not “get” Shakespeare they have failed in terms of education and intellect. Furthermore, it pokes fun at the highbrow usage of Shakespeare by other artists. As Diana Henderson argues, “more often than not, modern artists invoke Shakespeare as precisely what he could not be in his own time: a source of unquestioned artistry and authority” (Collaborations 3). Thus the moment of silence is working on several levels, both cementing Shakespeare’s canonical status and subverting those that place him there.

The basic plot for this performance pulled in several plays, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest. Employing an episodic structure, the performance followed star-crossed lovers Benvolio and Bianca. Clearly drawing on Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio’s “wingman” was none other than Romeo himself, who was rather asexual throughout the performance, contrasted with Bianca’s nurse-maid, who was a hyper-sexual take on the nurse from Romeo and Juliet. The two Italians have come to Verona, England (the setting sets up one of the more parodic lines of the play when a guard finds Benvolio and Romeo and cries out “there are Italians in the streets of Verona!”) to capture the hand of the lovely Princess Bianca. Mimicking the secondary plot line from The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca plays the unwed ingénue. Rather than an unmarried older sister in the way of her love, however, her father, the king, has planned a political marriage with Prince Ferdinando of Spain. The king wants Bianca to marry so that she and her husband can be next in line for the crown since nobody wants Bianca’s half-wit older brother, Peter, to claim the crown.

Over the next ninety minutes, Benvolio and Romeo have a falling out over a misunderstanding, Ferdinando proves to be as dastardly as his accent (and Catholicism) suggests, the king finalizes the royal marriage, and Bianca and her nurse-maid sneak out in disguise like unto Portia and Nerissa, to find their true loves. Bianca’s over-sexualized nurse-maid has thrown herself at Romeo in an inversion of Act II, Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet where she is sent by Juliet to find Romeo and reports back of his continued affection. The nurse-maid later throws herself at Ferdinando, a humorous scene featuring a series of nautical sexual metaphors sinking deeper into the abyss of vulgarity, but since she was disguised at the time, Benvolio, who overheard their textual mating, assumed that she was actually Bianca.

Through a series of mistaken identities, cross dressing, and bloody fights, Benvolio, Bianca, and the twenty-odd characters introduced all converge at the royal masquerade where Ferdinando and Bianca are to be wed. Interrupted by a performance from a group of players who discover that pantomime is not simply presenting a series of sexually suggestive poses, the play comes together in a series of fights waged between the many characters played by the five actors. Dressed as her brother to deceive her father and Ferdinando, Bianca and Benvolio ultimately come together after a bloody battle between Ferdinando and Benvolio that leaves nearly everyone dead (in the midst of the chaos one of the actors called out “raise your hand if you’re not dead.”). The play ends with a pair of marriages, first a same sex marriage between the dying Chamberlain and Apothecary, and finally with Bianca and Benvolio.

The performance featured several instances of mixing high and popular culture. For instance, when one of the king’s servants was helping the hapless king open doors with his mind, he quipped to the audience, referring to royalty being bestowed with honors and awards that they haven’t earned, “It is rather unexpected - and some may argue undeservèd - for you to win such an award.” The line was in reference to the day’s big news: President Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize while also overseeing two wars. Furthermore, the play blended the improvisational and Shakespearian practice of doubling. This technique is not only humorous, but allows for the group to present the type of sprawling cast found in Shakespeare’s plays, while also showing the virtuosity of the performers. But more than that, it directly comments on Shakespeare’s doubling, and links the two popular forms of entertainment.

With the sample performance in mind, the one issue that faces any Shakespearian adaptation/appropriation is language. Ryan Hubbard said of “The Taming of the Jew,” that the show “flowers in the language: they relish iambic dialogue, execute perfectly timed asides, occasionally utter rhyming couplets, and drop parodic phrases, and well-placed anachronisms.” Of “Iago’s Regret,” Kerry Reid said that “the ensemble creates a clever riff on the source, complete with torturous riddles…A delightful evening that celebrates the best of both iambics and long-form improv.” The language that the group uses in performance clearly has its root in a textual base. Audiences can see in their approach a reverence for the text, a common theme in contemporary popular Shakespeare - a deification of Shakespeare’s language that serves as the foundation for an adaptation or appropriation that ultimately rewrites that language. While many contemporary examples try to rewrite or update the language, and with it notions about high and low art, the ISC uses the language to connect with a popular audience. In other words, they “address an audience hungry for words as performance” (Henderson, "From Popular" 18).

Perhaps the biggest issue facing any contemporary Shakespearian production - whether a faithful staging of Othello, a film adaptation of Henry V, or a commercial featuring “to be or not to be” - is the language. Shakespeare’s language is often used by high culture to assert Shakespeare’s cultural supremacy. The reverence of the play texts, the oceans of ink spilled analyzing the plays, and the tradition of academic close readings all help to place Shakespeare’s language on a pedestal perhaps higher than any other artistic pedestal in Western art. Language supposedly offers us the "authentic" Shakespeare. The ways in which the text is treated as scripture reinforces the idea of the language holding the key to Shakespeare, and henceforth the key to cultural and artistic authority. As Douglass Lanier notes, “the value accorded the Shakespearian text is so widespread that it seems perverse to think otherwise; where else might one locate the authentic Shakespeare than in Shakespeare’s exact words?” (59). Adaptations and appropriations must constantly negotiate the language and the strong attachment many have to the aesthetic authority it represents.

The major question facing nearly every contemporary popular representation remains the same: Is Shakespeare’s language essential to Shakespeare? Can that language be changed, translated, reduced, or even jettisoned entirely and the result remain in some sense Shakespearian? How then does a group that improvises negotiate the issue of language? Shakespop has a fundamental ambivalence about Shakespearian language. On the one hand, popular appropriations recognize the inherited cultural authority of Shakespeare’s language and often take pains to preserve and co-opt it. On the other hand, because high culture has erected Shakespeare’s language as the ultimate artistic achievement in English, popular culture has used Shakespearian language as a foil against which to establish itself as popular.
One example that helps position The ISC’s approach to language is the Firesign Theatre. Working in the mid-1960s and 1970s, the foursome created psychedelic stream of consciousness radio recordings mixing high and pop culture. At first glance, the group may appear to simply be a burlesque, but upon closer inspection Firesign’s approach is best described as parodic homage, one that celebrated Shakespeare’s language. Like Firesign, the ISC works to celebrate the language. While the group still subverts the authority that exists within that language, they clearly have a reverence for it. This fact is evident from the very beginning of the performance, when the group takes a moment of silence to celebrate the Bard, yet The ISC has a unique relationship to language since it is completely improvised and not an adaptation or appropriation of a particular play or idea.
By removing the actual text and all of its connotations but maintaining its authority by speaking in Elizabethan English, the ISC make their performances more accessible and less threatening to popular audiences who sometimes assume they simply "won’t get the language." Through improv, the group is able to avoid language issues that other groups and adaptations must face. By having modern actors speaking in Elizabethan vocabulary, improv allows the players to modernize the language while maintaining textual authority. The audience revels in the modern players’ ability to speak "naturally" in an Elizabethan style. By celebrating Shakespeare’s poetry without the actual text (and all of its cultural baggage), the group supports Shakespeare’s cultural authority and supremacy while also subverting the common deification that usually accompanies Shakespearian language.

But why Shakespeare? Why not mix improv and Socrates? By using Shakespeare, the group asks us to rethink our notions about Shakespeare. The vast quantity (and quality) of Shakespop begs the question, what exactly is Shakespeare in the twenty-first century? The ISC takes that one step further by asking what makes Shakespeare SHAKESPEARE? The language? The text? The tunics? By questioning what makes Shakespeare, the group also puts a new twist into the stage versus page debate that has contributed to Shakespeare’s meaning and reception for centuries. By removing the text, the group privileges performance, but does so knowing that all Shakespearian performance comes from a text - whether it be a traditional production, adaptation, or revision. Even an improvised performance stems from the page. As we’ve seen through the group’s rigorous study of Shakespeare’s works, a printed source still informs a production even if there is no printed text. Lastly, Shakespeare’s cultural authority and prestige brings people into the theater, and it brings them to improvisation, which is continually fighting for new audiences. Shakespeare is one of pop culture’s favorite ways to critique the culture and aesthetic he seemingly represents. Likewise, improvisational theater is a traditionally subversive form, which can be seen in the dismissal of the primacy of text and traditional creative hierarchies. Improv also challenges audiences to rethink their notions of Shakespeare. By combining improv and Shakespeare, the group asks fundamental questions about the meaning, creation, and primacy of art. What is art? And who decides what is good (i.e. Shakespeare) and what is bad or popular (i.e. improv)?

The ISC seems to be saying that Shakespeare and modern popular culture should not be separate terms waged in a battle between cultural strata, but should be a way to understand Shakespeare in a broader context. Shakespeare should not be seen solely as the bearer of cultural supremacy, but as a part of popular culture whose survival and authority depend upon his relationship to that culture. The ISC works to negotiate the distance between the popular playwright and the bearer of cultural supremacy, asserting and subverting popular notions about The Bard, ultimately presenting Shakespeare without SHAKESPEARE.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. NY: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Donohue, Joseph. The Cambridge History of British Theatre: 1660-1895. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Habicht, Werner. "Shakespeare Celebrations in Times of War." Shakespeare Quarterly 52.4 (2001): 441-455.

Halpern, Charna. Art by Committee. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, 2006.

Heisler, Steve. "No holds Bard: ISC frees its group mind with highbrow ideology." TimeOut Chicago 24 May 2007:

Henderson, Diana. Collaborations with the Past. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2006.

---. "From Popular Entertainment to Literature." The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture. Ed. Robert Shaugnessy. Cambridge, England, Cambridge UP, 2007. 6-25.

Hubbard, Ryan. "The Improvised Shakespeare Company." Chicago Reader 30 March 2006:

Lanier, Douglas. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford, England and NY: Oxford UP, 2002.

Lawrence W. Levine. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Libera, Anne. The Second CIty Almanac of Improvisation. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2004.

Reid, Kerry. "'Underwater' Drowns, the Bard Inspires Fun Improv." Chicago Tribune 13 October 2006:

Sharbaugh, Patrick. "Chicago's Improvised Shakespeare Company hones its Piccolo Fringe act to fare thee well." Charleston City Paper Online 7 June 2006:

Shaugnessy, Robert. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Popular Culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Worthen, W.B. "Shakespeare 3.0." Alternative Shakespeare 3. Ed. Diana Henderson. NY: Routledge, 2008. 54-77.

Wyatt, Nelson. "Improvised Shakespeare adds fresh, comedic turn to Bard's turf." The Canadian Press 21 April 2009:

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