Spontaneous Shakespeare – Improvising the Bard in Melbourne

As soon as I tell anyone that the Soothplayers improvise Shakespeare plays, I find their reactions eerily similar to those people have when I tell them I’m from Mississippi. They are usually on a continuum between these two:

Given the demigodly status assigned to Shakespeare and his works by centuries of tradition, it comes as a surprise that we might dare to attempt such transcendent genius on the spot with no scripts, plans, or rewrites. People who love the Bard might well question the possibility of an “authentic” improvised Shakespeare play.

Likewise, given Bill’s canonical status, many of us have slept through or at least viciously side-eyed some truly dull Shakespeare work at some point, either in classrooms or at theatres. At best, we left those experiences resentful, and at worst we were positively demoralised by our own inability to understand what we are told is “great literature.” 

Three of the Soothplayers (from left): Nathan Carter, Dana McMillan, and Stephanie Crowe.

Three of the Soothplayers (from left): Nathan Carter, Dana McMillan, and Stephanie Crowe.

Enter Soothplayers. If you watched the video above, you know we promise to make up a play using a title provided by the audience: all on-the-spot, all using the language and themes of Mr Shakespeare. Previous titles include the likes of Donald Trump the First, Part 1 (played LAST April...), The Bald and the Beautiful, and The Ginger of Norway. Yes, it's really all made up. No, we won't do Hamlet.

The feedback we are most proud of after two years of performing in Melbourne? “That was the first time I felt like I understood Shakespeare.” “That was hilarious” works as a close second.

We perform a few key values, we hope, wherever we play. First: what we do is for everyone. Even when we play the darkest tragedy, our show will make you laugh. We’ll refund you if not (really). We accomplish this by full commitment to characters’ desires and emotional realities, no matter how absurd those might be.

Second, “authenticity” can follow “originality” straight to the bin, as far as we are concerned. We really do play comedy, tragedy, or history. We really drop rhyming couplets, character asides to the audience, and soliloquies at critical moments. We “thee” and “thou” when it suits, and we love the mouthfeel of a succulent metaphor. But if you want a night of theatre “as the Bard intended,” then you must enjoy the taste of disappointment by now.

Finally, the truth of what we do is in our name. Literally. “Soothplayers,” in addition to its deep cut on the Ides of March, indicates that we play the truth. In improvised theatre, that’s not a deep philosophical question. The truth is what happens. The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improvisation school motto poses the question: “If this is true, what else is true?” Each improviser can’t know the full implications of what they say and do in the moment. That depends on the whole troupe’s ability to accept those actions and to honour them later. You thought someone saying ‘groble’ instead of ‘noble’ was an actor’s mistake under pressure. You will soon learn, however, that everyone in this play describes the ‘grobility’ as groble.

Completely Improvised Shakespeare will perform twenty-two new plays at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival: 30 March to 23 April (yes…the Bard’s birthday!). We will follow that up with a trip to Stratford (Victoria!) for the Shakespeare on the River Festival, running shows and improvised Shakespeare.