Comedy troupe makes up Shakespeare as they like it

Blaine Swen, founder of
the Improvised Shakespeare Company, appears on stage with other members of the troupe. (Photo by Alex
Erde/provided by Improvised Shakespeare Company)

The audience at the upcoming Improvised Shakespeare Company show on campus won’t know what play they’ll
be seeing.
That’s up to them.
The night’s fare will be created based on a title suggested by someone in the audience. It has to be a
title of a play that doesn’t exist.
Beyond that the audience will know that this will definitely not be a drama pulled from one of the Bard’s
folios and it definitely will be a comedy show.
The five members of the troupe don’t know much more either.
Blaine Swen, the founder of the company, said they won’t know if it’s a tragedy or comedy until the very
end. "Sometimes everything will be going happily and then everybody dies. … That’s what’s
exciting we’re discovering everything in real time with the audience."
The Improvised Shakespeare Company will perform as part of Festival Series April 5 at 8 p.m. in Kobacker
Hall in the Moore Musical Arts Center.
Swen said his troupe takes their celebration of Shakespeare seriously. They attend productions of plays
that Shakespeare actually wrote. They consult scholars. They even take vocabulary quizzes.
"We’re really trying to do something that more closely resembles Shakespeare would write," he
said. Not just "a gross broad parody."
True to the dictum of their home theater the iO in Chicago, they believe if they "play the
characters honestly… the comedy will come."
The actors want the audience to connect emotionally with the characters they bring to life.
"That’s not to say," Swen added, "that it doesn’t turn into something that resembles Monty
Python. Very often it will."
Swen got his start in improv back in high school. He attended an audition with a friend and fell in love
with it.
Shakespeare and improv comedy came together for him in a troupe the Backstreet Bards – quite topical back
in 1999.
When he moved to Chicago for graduate school, he decided to take it a step further and instead of skits,
create longer plays, 75 minutes or so.
In 2005 he formed the Improvised Shakespeare Company. The troupe now has 20 members, five of whom perform
on any given show.
The actors spin out plot and language from that initial suggestion.
"One of my greatest challenges is letting go on trying to control things," Swen said. "You
have to be able to support the other person’s idea even at the sacrifice of your own idea."
That’s hard, he explained, because "you can see where your idea is going." Instead the actor
must be willing to surrender that bit of certainty and trust that working together "something will
That includes an openness to the spur of the moment malapropism. Someone may fumble over a word and come
up with a new one that the troupe will then weave into the texture of that play.
"We make up words all the time," Swen said. They have license to do it because Shakespeare did.

Unlike the master’s enduring coinages, though, "we’ll do them in the context of the play and then
they will disappear."
And while they do try "to maintain Shakespearean language," pop culture references and the odd
contemporary colloquialism will work its way into the play.
"We find the spontaneity of the show is essential," he said. "What we discover in the
moment is more exciting that what we planned."
Despite immersing himself into this faux Shakespearean world on stage, Swen said he has no problem
slipping back into everyday life.
At the coffeeshop in the morning, he said, "I’ve never actually asked for a sweet cup of Colombian

No posts to display