Friday, November 7, 2014

The Complete History of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (abridged) [revised]

by Deanie Vallone

Humble Beginnings

The Goof. The Scholar. The Overzealous Actor. How these three archetypes reshaped William Shakespeare’s works has become the stuff of legend. It was 1981 when Daniel Singer created a reduced HAMLET for a thirty-minute slot at the California Renaissance Faire. He cast the show with four actors, including Jess Borgeson as Hamlet and Barbara Reinertson playing the female roles. However, a stage accident soon put Reinertson in a cast and out of the show. Singer turned to Adam Long, an actor who had given a “bizarre and wonderful performance” during auditions, to fill Reinertson’s roles. A few years later their fourth member left and, once more, Long stepped up, taking over his parts as well. Three actors playing four parts. Male actors playing female roles. In this simplicity the troupe discovered their comic genius.
Singer recalls their surprising popularity. Their half-hour performance drew standing ovations, and one friend suggested they take the act to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a breeding ground for many now-famous plays. Learning that hour-long, one-act shows did best, they expanded their act into THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED). By the third day in Edinburgh they had sold out the entire run of their show. Shortly after they brought their success to America, where they secured a booking agent and began touring. “We loved going on the road and fine-tuning the show,” Singer recalls. “We were never satisfied with the jokes.” They adapted their script personally for each city they visited, making sure to touch on local landmarks and history. 

In 1991 Singer left for a full-time job with Disney, and Reed Martin joined the troupe. They officially became the Reduced Shakespeare Company (or the “other” RSC, not to be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and made this work their full-time, paying jobs. But why stop there?  The troupe (now, two years later, with Austin Tichenor in place of Borgeson) went on to develop THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED), followed in another two years by their controversial THE BIBLE: THE COMPLETE WORD OF GOD (ABRIDGED). The latter show made headlines this year when Northern Ireland banned a performance of it for blasphemy, then later revoked the ban. No one was surprised when tickets sold out rapidly after the ban was lifted.

Other “reduced” plays include THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS SHOW (ABRIDGED), THE COMPLETE WORLD OF SPORTS (ABRIDGED), and their newest addition, THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF COMEDY (ABRIDGED). The new shows, performing all over the globe, required an expanded rather than reduced cast and crew, and new actors and designers have since joined the company. Throughout Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have remained writers and directors behind the chaotic genius.

Behind the Magic

Tichenor and Martin represent the new face of the RSC. Working as independent contractors whose plays are then produced by the RSC, they have written three new shows in the past five years, and it is unlikely they will stop anytime soon. They first collaborated on HISTORY OF AMERICA and most recently finished up COMEDY in 2013. Writing as a team can sometimes be tricky, but Tichenor and Martin quickly give each other credit, noting the strengths that each brings to the table. Tichenor is particularly fond of “funny costumes,” or “ridiculous outfits” as Martin refers to them. Martin, on the other hand, creates most of the melodies used in the shows. Both agree that their motto is “We’ll figure it out in rehearsal!” Since the two also work as directors (and sometimes actors!) on their shows, the scripts go through multiple drafts during the course of the rehearsal process. Tichenor says, “There are things that happen where like a phrase or an idea gets thrown out that’s just a line of dialogue, and then we realize in writing and then often in the rehearsing of it, oh, that can actually be a running character motif.” In a more reduced way, Martin agrees: “You gotta get it up on its feet, see what happens!”

Their conversations and research oftentimes leads to inside jokes and comments that bloom into comedic gags used throughout the shows. But both writers are loath to let you think that their shows are just comic gags strung together. “I direct as if I’m directing a real play and not a comedy,” Tichenor says, “because I’m always saying to the actors, ‘Keep it real, keep it real’ because if it’s not real, then it’s just a series of jokes.” Keeping “the heart” of the show in the forefront has remained an essential element. 

Revision is another essential part of the RSC process. Working shows with live audiences has aided the writers in developing the script, and since no audience reacts the same way to the show, every night offers its own revised version. For Tichenor and Martin personally, approaching their work as writers, directors, and actors allows them to bring lots of experience, expertise, and viewpoints to the table.

Jess Winfield, one of the original creators/writers along with Long and Singer, talks about how necessary it is to keep the material fresh. “We always treated it like a rock ‘n’ roll set. We’d come in and decide if there was a new song we wanted to put in; things like the audience participation section were born. It was a matter of, ‘Hey, why don’t we try doing this?’ Not exactly improv but...” While some purists may balk at the idea of revising any successful theatrical production—if it isn’t broken, why fix it?—Winfield reminds us, “Shakespeare himself did it! […] Rewrites and revisions and tweaks in all of them.” Always aware of their collaborative roots, the script’s notes give actors and directors the freedom to rework bits that may seem out-of-date or just do not seem to work with the particular cast. The script, Tichenor says, is more of a “blueprint, a framework, a jumping off point.” Winfield agrees, “That’s what it always was for us.”

(abridged) AND [revised]?

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is bringing audiences the abridged (as usual) and revised (something new) version of the script. The revised script comes from about 2007 as the RSC considered the use of modern technology (the internet did not exist when they first wrote the script!), more topical references (scrapping the comments about the Reagan administration, for one), better transitions, and audience participation. Tichenor notes that these mostly “small, little changes” are only “maddening” because “God help me, I have to be a better actor.” More introspective, actor Matt Rippy notes, “I like that we’ve been challenged to think again and actually listen.”

“Shakespeare is eternal,” Singer says. “We chose the greatest subject to lampoon.” Looking back on his legacy, Singer calls himself one “proud papa.” And no doubt the original “papa,” The Bard, would be proud as well.  MCT certainly is—join us November 19-December 14, 2014, for our own celebration and skewering of the King of English lit!


Martin, Reed. Austin Tichenor. “Martin & Tichenor,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2011.
Reduced Shakespeare Company, Web. 20 October 2014.
Rippy, Matt. “What’s Really Changed,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2009.
Singer, Daniel. “The RSC Founder,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2008.
Tichenor, Austin. “Reduced Origins,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2014.
Tichenor, Austin. “What’s Really Changed,” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2009.
Winfield, Jess. “Shakespeare (abridged) [revised],” The Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, 2008.

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