Monday, October 17, 2011

Bootleg Shakespeare

Posted by James Ricks, Artistic Director, Henley Street Theatre
I’ve been invited by Barksdale to say a few words on the subject of the upcoming Bootleg Shakespeare Project to be performed for its third year at Barksdale Willow Lawn. Before I go into all that, I have to say that we at Henley Street Theatre are truly blessed to have such good friends at Barksdale to welcome us into their space and present something as special as an evening of free theatre to the community. It’s always an amazing experience and we couldn’t do it without 'em. Thanks again guys!

So...what is Bootleg Shakespeare?

Bootleg: - an audio and/or video recording of a performance that was not officially released by the artist, or under legal authority. The process of making and distributing such recordings is known as bootlegging.

This kind of production has taken various forms across the U.S. at some of the larger Shakespeare companies, but the term ‘Bootleg’ was coined by my good friends in Washington, DC at Taffety Punk Theatre who host their annual Bootleg Shakespeare at the Folger Theatre. Taffety Punk is a company comprised mostly of classically trained actors who froth at the mouth at the idea of taking on some of Shakespeare’s lesser known works and kicking it around in a free and friendly environment. That is exactly what the Bootleg shows are designed to do. I took part several years ago playing Henry in their production of Henry VIII and I can describe it as nothing less than a transformative and magical experience. It’s also the kind of theatre that I knew Richmond audiences would love.

Yes James, but you haven’t told us what it is yet…
Right, so here it is…

A cast of actors are given their roles 30 days before the day of the performance. Those actors are responsible for learning their lines on their own and assembling their own character, right down to all their props and costumes. On the day of the performance, this cast of lion-hearted actors meet at 7:30 am at Barksdale Theatre where we stage the show as thoroughly (and quickly) as we can. We repose for dinner and then mount the production at 7:30 pm, to a free and usually full house.

This project is awesome for three reasons:

1. The actors that take part in this project take their preparation quite seriously. Their primary direction from me during those 30 days of homework is to bring in strong choices. It’s only one night after all. Why just come in and recite lines? It’s always exciting to see what actors bring in.

2. These actors come into a performance environment where they don’t have the benefit of repetition and the comfort of getting familiar with those that are on stage with them. This can strike fear into the hearts of modern actors who are comfortable with a long rehearsal process. This project forces them to not only rely on their own devices and creativity, they also have to be hyper-aware of everything that’s going on around them within each moment. They don’t necessarily know what another actor is going to send their way. For me, it’s a perfect demonstration of what makes theatre magical: Actors that are truly living in the moment and listening to all the new stimulus around them, saying words with a freshness and vitality that feeds directly off the energy coming from their fellow actors.

3. The audience is complicit in this type of performance because they are aware of the rules of the exercise. They charge the air with their excitement and anticipation over any potential train-wreck. Interestingly, when a train wreck does occur, the audience rewards the actors with a kind of love you’d never see in a rehearsed production. Most importantly, they are even more energized by all the beautiful moments that actors find, even without the benefit of rehearsal. This energy creates a form of communication between actor and audience that is fearless and loving. I think that’s the kind of relationship we all strive for in life. To experience it on stage, even if for only a couple of hours, is pretty special. If you come to the show, you will see that this dynamic is palpable.

I kept the name ‘Bootleg Shakespeare’ because it lends itself to a feeling of illicitness and irreverence. This is not museum piece Shakespeare. While these actors are highly trained and come in tremendously prepared, there is a youthful, almost child-like approach to the work. Usually with the Bootlegs we produce the plays of Shakespeare that are not very well known. This prevents actors from falling back on their preconceptions of how it is ‘supposed to be done’. Rather, it gives them permission to dive into the deep end of the creative pool. As long as it tells the story, the actors are free to make as bold a choice as possible. It’s only one night after all – and it’s free. No worry of setting off some punctilious reviewer and no worry over the box-office take. It’s a celebration of theatre and it’s actor driven.

At the end of the night, we hope people are galvanized by the fact that they saw a play by Shakespeare they will likely never see, even at a professional Shakespeare company. They will see actors perform a production that is very often much better than many main stage productions, simply due the energy that can only be found at a ‘one-night-only’ performance. They will feel the playfulness that actors bring to the text, thereby giving them permission to listen and react in a way that they might not at a ‘proper’ production where they might feel more self-aware. And at the very end of the night, they will be introduced to the final member of the cast, Phil. Phil, the bucket. I don’t think I need to go into detail about Phil. But I will say that he is hungry to help us keep doing what we do.

I highly encourage you to come out and experience what is truly a memorable evening of theatre. It really is enormously fun, it’s full of great talent and hey, it costs you nothing to attend. What more could you ask for in this economy?

Here are the artists involved in this year’s production: Daryl Clark Philips, John Mincks, Zoe Speas, Foster Solomon, Joe Carlson, Liz Blake White, Kerry McGee, James Rees, Brendan Titley, Jeff Cole, Emma Mason, Ryan Bechard, Adam Mincks, Dean Knight, Matt Hackman, Zach Page, Stan Baranowski, Chris Yarbrough and Cynde Liffick.
Music by: Beggars of Life & Drawn a Blank

The performance is on October 22 at Barksdale’s Willow Lawn theatre. The box office opens at 6:00 pm where people can grab their tickets. There is a two ticket limit per person, so get there early!

There is a preshow performance in the lobby at 7:00 by Beggars of Life, where you can sit and enjoy the offerings of Barksdale’s bar.

For more information, check us out at:

Thanks for reading and thanks for supporting live theatre!

--James Ricks, Artistic Director – Henley Street Theatre

All photos courtesy of Henley Street Theatre

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