Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 45
Discovered in a treasure-filled parking lot in Leicester, England, an ancient manuscript proves to be the long lost first play by none other than the young William Shakespeare from Stratford. That’s the premise of the latest work from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), which premiered at Folger Theatre in April 2016.
The comedy troupe’s current directors are also its longest-serving performers, Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin. Barbara Bogaev interviews them about this new play and how it’s radically different from every other show they’ve written up to now.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © April 5, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Wendy Nicholson at public radio station KRCB in Rohnert Park, California and Jeff Peters at the studios of Marketplace in Los Angeles.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: For the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
This podcast is called “O, If a Muse Of Fire Be the Food Of Love, Let’s Eat!” And, no, that’s not a quotation from Shakespeare, though our guests would like you to think that it is. It’s a line from William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), the latest work from the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a comedy troupe that’s been spoofing, pranking, and cracking wise about Shakespeare in one form or another since 1981. The group’s current directors are also its longest serving performers, Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin.
Reed and Austin joined us recently to talk about this new work, which is radically different from every other show they’ve written up to now. They’re interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: While, although in the grand scheme of madcap comedy, it hardly matters what the premise is for this new production, I’m going to ask about it anyway. What is the backstory to Shakespeare’s Long Lost Play?
REED MARTIN: The premise within the play is that we are on tour in England, and we are performing at a theater in Leicester and we went back to Titus, which is parked in the park-
AUSTIN TICHENOR: We usually explain what Titus is.
MARTIN: Oh, we tour England in a 15 passenger van we call Titus Van Dronicus. Yeah, it’s awesome. And, so we went back to the parking lot, and we found a hole in the parking lot, and in the hole was a pile of bones and they seemed unimportant, so we ignored those. But there was also this huge manuscript, and it turned out to be William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play.
BOGAEV: No, and this is how archeology works, by the way.
MARTIN: Exactly right.
TICHENOR: It’s exactly how, yes, it’s like a documentary you’re listening to. And, actually, this script is different that our, most of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s scripts. We’ve been asked over the years many times, oh, aren’t you afraid to be competing with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, you know, the script that started it all for the Reduced Shakespeare Company, and-
BOGAEV: Right, which is a parody of all 37 plays in 97 minutes and it elicited, perhaps, the all-time best capsule review that “If you liked Shakespeare, you’ll like this show. If you hate Shakespeare, you’ll love this show.”
TICHENOR: Exactly right.
MARTIN: Your money’s in the mail.
TICHENOR: Yes. Thank you for saying that. It actually began, the idea, the seed for the idea, was actually born there in the Folger vaults. We were given a tour and we asked the question, “What would be the Holy Grail?” And they said, “Something written in his own hand.” Do we think that’s a likely thing to find? No. But that’s what got Reed and I thinking, gee, wouldn’t it be fun to write that. To create that thing ourselves, and so it has been.
BOGAEV: The Long Lost Play of Shakespeare, as seen through the eyes of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. So are there things in this new show that fans will have seen before, or did you just tear up the old playbook and start completely fresh?
TICHENOR: First of all, all of our scripts get compared to The Complete Works and what we really determined was that this is the first show that we’ve written for the Reduced Shakespeare Company that takes a single story from beginning to end. The Complete Works deals with, you know, 20-minute Romeo and Juliet, and then the second act is mostly Hamlet. This was the first time that we created a single story that started at the beginning of the evening and went to the end. Because we discovered in a few of our shows, notably, Completely Hollywood (abridged), that audiences like stories.
BOGAEV: That’s a revolutionary concept, yeah. And a through line.
MARTIN: We’re just slow. It took us 25 years, but apparently, people like stories.
TICHENOR: People like stories.
BOGAEV: You caught on. A through line is helpful, and you do have a through line, right, in this production, a feud between Ariel and Puck?
TICHENOR: Yes, there’s a merry war betwixt them, it’s sort of an ancient grudge. You can see that in his first play, he was using lines and tropes given to Puck and Ariel that he would later then split off and give to Beatrice and Benedick, and give to the Montagues and the Capulets. So you see a lot of the seeds of his future plays in this Long Lost First Play.
MARTIN: Yes, he was a very young playwright, and everything he could think of, he put into this one Long Lost First Play. And then he figured out, “You know what, this is 37 or 38 or whatever number of plays, it’s not one. Let’s bury this thing and start over.”
TICHENOR: Yeah, “There’s enough genius in here to give myself a lifetime of playwriting, I don’t need to shoot it all in my first script.”
BOGAEV: This is a much deeper backstory than I ever imagined, but…
MARTIN: Thank you.
BOGAEV: How much actual Shakespeare is in the show? Reed, I’ll ask you that.
MARTIN: A lot.
TICHENOR: A lot, actually, and that was the other thing that’s quite different from our previous scripts, is that most of the show is in iambic pentameter. It was less writing and more excavation. We wanted all the lines to be actual Shakespeare lines from one of the plays, somewhere, repurposed into a new context. That was part of the fun of it. And then, of course, we changed lines and blatantly just wrote our own rhyming iambic pentameter when we needed to.
BOGAEV: Which I’m sure we won’t be able to tell from Shakespeare.
MARTIN: This was young, bad Shakespeare.
TICHENOR: This is young, bad Shakespeare, who wrote exactly like us, strangely.
BOGAEV: Teenage Shakespeare. And when you say actual Shakespeare lines, you, of course, mean the Folger editions, right? They were your base text?
TICHENOR: You know, the Folger complete works editions are the official, complete works editions of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play. This has been home-grown Folger from the very inception of the idea, through the research and the writing, now to the world premiere at the Folger Theatre.
BOGAEV: You know what, this is reminding me of a podcast that we did recently with the creators of a comic book series called Kill Shakespeare, and in the series, all Shakespeare’s characters team up to kill Shakespeare, who is maybe a God or a wizard or something evil. It’s like the Avengers or the Fantastic Four or something. Is this a trend, or just a natural format for a mash-up?
TICHENOR: I do think, I think it is a trend. I do think this mash-up of literary things is a trend. And, certainly the idea of reducing things seems to have caught on in the 30 years that the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s been reducing things, telling stories with very small numbers of cast members. You know there’s now the “Potted Potter” phenomenon, which we get compliments for all the time, but it has nothing to do with us.
MARTIN: Imitation is the sincerest form of larceny.
TICHENOR: Yes, it is.
MARTIN: Yes, yes.
TICHENOR: And then there was the four-person version of “39 Steps” that actually played in our theater in London for almost as long as we played.
BOGAEV: Right, and that five-character version of “Around the World in 80 Days.” Goes on and on.
MARTIN: Yes, he’s been inspired by us, he told us.
TICHENOR: He actually told us that.
TICHENOR: Inspired, in air quotes, could you hear the air quotes there?
BOGAEV: Well done, well played. But by mash-up, you mean that you not only combine all these elements from all the plays, but you all guys also invent all new parody bits, and for people who haven’t seen The Complete Works, I’ll just give an example. There are scenes that are Shakespeare-ish, or Shakespeare-y, but they’re definitely not Shakespeare. For instance, there’s a Titus Andronicus bit that was just really a cooking show sketch. It’s Roman Meals hosted by Titus Andronicus by way of Emeril. And there’s another one that was a football sketch. So is this new show along those lines? Or is there just more hardcore Shakespeare content in there?
TICHENOR: It’s actually, I don’t think it is along those lines, in fact. I mean, both those sketches that you alluded to were satires of scholarship, trying to explain the history plays. Oh, “I know a good analogy would be American football,” all right, that’s one way. Or, in the case of Titus, it was a satire of conceptual productions that need to set Shakespeare’s plays in some sort of new world, which gives the play a new context.
MARTIN: Because they won’t stand on their own.
TICHENOR: Yes, because, God forbid, they stand on their own.
BOGAEV: Right, you’ve got to doctor them, spice them up, bam, as Emeril.
MARTIN: Yep, bam!
TICHENOR: Exactly. Yes, and so William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play is actually less like that. It’s more just kind of the language and the text. And condensing, this is the other thing we discovered with this long lost manuscript, it’s 100 hours long. The prologue talks about the 100 hours traffic of our stage. It was, there are many other textual clues that indicate this long-list play was never meant for actual production. But…
MARTIN: As we will prove every night.
BOGAEV: Over and over.
TICHENOR: But the literary responsibility and the theatrical opportunity were just too good to pass up, so we abridged the 100 hours traffic of our stage down to a more palatable two.
BOGAEV: Right, and these combinations of characters were too good to pass up, it sounds like. You put Hamlet, who can’t for the life of him make a decision, with the great decider, Lady Macbeth.
TICHENOR: Well, exactly right. Just think what an enjoyably short play Hamlet would have been if Lady Macbeth had been in it.
MARTIN: It’s a one act.
BOGAEV: Truly reduced.
MARTIN: Kill him. Done.
TICHENOR: And one of the other things that we discovered that Shakespeare was so young and foolhardy about, is that he actually wrote Richard III, but made him a really likeable character.
BOGAEV: Well, there is so much fodder for comedy in there and you’ve been at this for 35 years now. Speaking of that, since we’re celebrating your 35th anniversary with this new production, maybe we can get you guys reminiscing about how this all started. And starting with you, Reed, how deeply were you into Shakespeare before you got involved with the company? Were you a high-school Shakespeare fan?
MARTIN: I was not a high-school Shakespeare fan. In fact, the truth is, we were supposed to read Hamlet in my junior English class and it made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t get through it. And then I went to Berkeley, where I happened to meet Austin, but I also had, there was a beautiful blonde woman in my political science class, and I said, “What do you major in?” and she said, “Theater.”
BOGAEV: And that did it?
MARTIN: And so I decided to major in theater. Ultimately in college, I got into it and studied Shakespeare and then I did graduate work at UC San Diego and worked at the Old Globe. And then, after all this study, I went away and joined the circus. I went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College and toured for two years on the circus. And then Jess Winfield, who along with Daniel Singer and Adam Long, were the original three members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
Jess had been at Berkeley with Austin and I, and tracked me down, and said “Hey, Daniel is leaving, would you like to come do this?” And, well, I had had Shakespeare classical training and circus clown training, and it was a perfect combination. They had been performing at Renaissance faires since 1981. They called me at the end of ’89. It still wasn’t a full time job, they were still basically performing at Ren fairs. They had started to tour a little bit around the United States, and so I said “Sure.” I was ready to leave the circus after two years. So, I joined. But we still sort of have that, you know, street performer ethos. Fast, funny, physical, keep the laughs coming.
BOGAEV: That improv feeling. Well, that’s really interestingly linear path in its own nonlinear way. What about you, Austin?
TICHENOR: I did do plays in high school, but none of them Shakespeare. I did read Shakespeare in high school, and I hated reading it at home at night before the class the next morning. Fortunately, I had a couple of great English teachers in high school who made us, allowed us, to read the plays out loud in class. And that’s where it really came alive. Even now when I’m reading a Shakespeare play, I read it out loud to myself, so I try not to do it in a public place where I look overly crazy. So…
MARTIN: And this is something our characters argue about in the play.
MARTIN: It’s that Austin, you know, Austin’s arguing, “Oh, let me read this one section for you, it’s really great.” And then he just literally opens the script and reads it silently, and I go, “Now, these are meant to be performed, not read.”
TICHENOR: Well, and then from high school I went on, I got my MFA in directing from Boston University, and I both directed Shakespeare scenes in class, I was in a play, Claudius in a school production of Hamlet, and then I directed one-hour versions of Shakespeare at a regional theater in New Hampshire, where I was running things. And so it was great. When Reed called me, and said “Do you want to come play Hamlet in the West End,” I went, “Well, I’m really going to have to think… Okay, I’ll come, yes.” And he said, I don’t know if this is going to be a three-week gig, a three-month gig, a three-year gig. And here it is 23 years later, Reed and I have been running the Reduced Shakespeare Company. It’s been great training, and it’s been fun for me, to come, for the company, to return to our Shakespearean roots. And as you said, continue to make comic hay with them is really extraordinary.
BOGAEV: When I hear you talking about this evolution of this company, I’m also thinking that the spirit of what you do seems very much apiece with your history. So was this a natural evolution to where you are now? Or how did it all come together?
MARTIN: You know, it, the company, it performed, passing the hat, for 10 years. So, I guess like many, many things, it wasn’t planned. It evolved, you know, we did it because we loved it. And after 10 years, the company had a 20-minute Hamlet and a 20-minute Romeo and Juliet and said well, somebody suggested, “Why don’t you do the complete works of Shakespeare?” And so I said, “Great idea,” and somebody else said, “Why, take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.” And so, they said “Yes, yes, let’s do that.” And sort of wrote the material connecting Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet on the plane over, and thought they’d go over there and, you know, sort of it it would be the swan song, and they’d come back and drive taxis and do word processing. But it turned out to be popular.
In 1990, we got our first opportunity to tour England, and then ended up with a run in the West End. So, although the company started in America, and performed exclusively in America for years and years before we went to England, we hit it first big in England. And we’re still more famous in England. Kind of what Jerry Lewis is to France, we are to England: old, bitter, and bloated.
BOGAEV: So, here’s my question. When you’re up there, do you want people to say, “Wow these guys are great at Shakespeare, they could do real Shakespeare if they wanted to.”
MARTIN: We try to include a moment like that in every show, because I know when I go to see somebody who’s setting something up, I feel like they are making a choice to do it this way as opposed to, this is the only way they could do it…
MARTIN: I admire it a little bit more.
TICHENOR: Yeah, I think that’s always fun. I do think that’s exactly what we want people to think. It’s nice.
MARTIN: And we like to surprise them with that fact.
MARTIN: So it may come, maybe halfway through the second act, and all of a sudden, wait a minute, these monkeys could actually do this.
BOGAEV: Surprise them with virtuosity.
TICHENOR: Indeed. And it’s funny you talk about the comedy boom in the 80s. It’s true, but so much of our comedy…
MARTIN: Comic influences.
TICHENOR: Thank you, our comic influences, were older than that. Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers.
MARTIN: Buster Keaton.
TICHENOR: Buster Keaton, going back to silent comedy. Some of the vaudeville routines we know from the 19th century are because we saw people like Abbot and Costello repeat them. But also there’s great theatrical moments that come directly from Shakespeare himself. You know, every famous coach’s speech in the locker room comes from Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. I mean, he just influenced, all of, much of what we know and experience comes from Shakespeare. And, in fact, one of the joys of performing it is for audience members to come up and say, “I knew more Shakespeare than I thought I knew.” Because his language and his phraseology permeates our culture to such a great degree.
BOGAEV: Oh, that’s one of the great joys, right, of watching? I was just watching the new Macbeth film with Michael Fassbender, and I thought I knew Macbeth, but I didn’t know “laughing stock,” “one fell swoop,” “a charmed life,” that all comes from Macbeth.
TICHENOR: That’s right.
MARTIN: Well, and expanding a little bit on what Austin was just saying, not only do people know more Shakespeare, but our shows are great for families. You know, maybe kids who haven’t been exposed to Shakespeare and they go, are they going to like this. It’s just, it’s fun, and it’s a great first. We don’t design it for kids, we design it to amuse ourselves, which, maybe that says something about us. But, families, you know, there’s something there for adults, there’s something there for kids, and then they’re turned on, and then they want to see more Shakespeare.
TICHENOR: Well, and absolutely. And little kids particularly, Peter Holland, our friend, Professor Peter Holland from Notre Dame, says, you know, when should kids be first taken to Shakespeare, as young as possible, because they don’t know that they’re supposed to be intimidated by Shakespeare the way some grown-ups do. And so, kids are learning how grown-ups speak all the time, so to them Shakespearian language is just another way grown-ups speak. So they have sometimes less problems with it than some grown-ups who have learned it in high school and didn’t understand and have some fear of it. And so it’s been gratifying so far in the workshop productions we’ve done is that we’ll get kids coming to the show, which is great, and they’re having a blast, and then we’ll get boyfriends or girlfriends or husbands and spouses.
TICHENOR: Dragged, kicking and screaming, to the show, who say, “Oh my God, I really liked that.” You know?
MARTIN: “I’m shocked.”
TICHENOR: “I’m shocked at how much I enjoyed Shakespeare.”
BOGAEV: Well, you’re talking about workshops. So, let’s talk process. How do you guys make this happen? Do you write together? Or do you pass scripts around? Do you have a writing regimen?
MARTIN: It takes a while to come up with what’s the idea for the show. And then we do lots of research. I mean, sometimes it’s topics we’re very familiar with, like Shakespeare, so we’ve been researching it our whole lives. And then we kind of start to, for most of our shows, we start to outline. We write separately, talk about it.
BOGAEV: Because it doesn’t work if you two are together? Do you get hung up on small stuff?
MARTIN: We used to.
MARTIN: Yeah, we’d sit in a room and argue about participles. And so we said, “Yeah, why don’t you go write a scene, I’ll go write a scene.”
TICHENOR: But we do bat around ideas in the improv stage. We’ll either, either in an office or backstage or in a bar, you know, we’ll be kicking “Oh, what if it was this and this and this and this and this,” and then that gives one of us enough to say, “Yes, this is all great, let me go home and write that.” Because then we’ll have something specific to try or react to.
MARTIN: And then, so after, you know, six months, nine months, depending on the show, we have a rough first draft and then we start to rehearse. Our process on this, I guess this is the fourth show where we used this process, is that we do non-Reduced Shakespeare Company workshops of the show. It used to be that Austin and I would write, act, direct, and produce the shows from the very beginning. And for these last four shows we’ve just written and directed these workshops, and that way we could rewrite and not have to worry about memorizing it that evening, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the production aspect of it. And that’s really sped up and streamlined the process, so we rehearse for about…
BOGAEV: That’s just smart. That’s smart. So you rehearse and then, does improv play a big part in that process?
MARTIN: It doesn’t, actually. I mean, sitting around talking about it, kicking around ideas, yes, but it’s all, and we hope it does look like it developed through improv. Because, I think all good acting should look like you’re making it up on the spot. But, really, it’s 95, 98 percent completely scripted. Now, the script changes as we perform it and rewrite it. Sometimes things go wrong and on the night, we’d improvise something, and if that turns out to be funny and we can recreate it to make it look like it’s accidentally happening every night, we’ll include it. But, yeah, it’s all very scripted.
BOGAEV: And since this production breaks your format, that it’s a full length work with a through line, did that change your process at all?
MARTIN: A little bit, in that we, like, say when we’re doing The History of America, Austin would say, “Well, I have a funny idea how to do Lewis and Clark,” you know, and I might say “I have a funny idea about World War I,” or something, and we’d go and write it separately. And then we’d sort of back-engineer it. “Well, how do these, how do these sketches all connect?” This was a little different, because you couldn’t write it, you could write it a little bit like that, because we’re seeing little bits and pieces of this 100-hour-long play, but still there needed to be more of a direct through line than with our other shows, wouldn’t you say?
TICHENOR: Yeah, I definitely would say. One idea we had, I remember, was that we wanted to have a scene in which Beatrice from Much Ado and Kate from Taming of the Shrew, school Juliet on men. And it’s a very fun scene and it’s one of the highlights that people talk, tell us afterwards that they really loved this scene. But we didn’t know where to put it, so it was just a challenge figuring out, all right, “Is it, does it stand alone, is it part of the story?” I think we love where it’s ended up, but that took us a while, finding the right place for that scene.
BOGAEV: Well, while we’re speaking of performance, I know that both of you have specialized in studying Shakespeare’s clowns and Reed, you have a background in the circus. So how has that area of expertise, if at all, informed your thinking or your performance, or some of the fine points that you’re talking about now?
MARTIN: Well, for me, I can think of two things right off the bat about how clown influences our work. First of all, in theater school and in training and doing shows, it’s rare that you learn how to interact with an audience. Just like, you learn the show, the director directs it, you rehearse it without an audience, and then you freeze it, and that’s the show.
And as a circus clown, you’re completely interacting with the public. You can see them, the lights are up, you’re in the stands for maybe 20 minutes before the show starts, and then you’re doing the circus, and then at intermission, you go. And, so, actually, you talk about what’s interactive, going up into the stands and dealing with parents and kids, and kids who are frightened, and parents who are trying to get you to come over, and kids who want to punch you in the nose, because you’re a clown and it seems like it doesn’t hurt, and, so…
BOGAEV: It does not get any more interactive than that.
MARTIN: No, and so, and that’s part of our big thing, is to break through the fourth wall. So that’s one aspect of it. And I would say the other aspect of it is, I think a clown may or may not talk, but they’re a physical comedian, and Shakespeare is very much about the words, which is great, and so, I think what the clown brings to our Shakespeare is a whole physical aspect to it that may or may not always be there.
BOGAEV: Well, looking at the arc of the company, then, over these 35 years, since we’re celebrating an anniversary, you spent all of these years reducing, and now if you look at this play, I guess you could say you’re expanding. So, what direction do you think you’ll take after this?
TICHENOR: Probably a long nap.
TICHENOR: A couple of stiff drinks, I think. I don’t know, we’ve talked about what our next show will be. I mean, we’re always talking about what our next show will be, but maybe that is, maybe this is a direction we go, instead of focus, it maybe, instead of reducing something large, we start to, we go microscopic and expand on a single author or a single story or something like that. It’s, it’s a kind of a fun challenge. We’re a theater group without a theater, without our own building. So it’s great that places like the Folger have kind of brought us into their homes, so we’re able to connect and develop relationships with their audiences.
MARTIN: Yeah, we’ve been… William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play is the fourth in a very… we’ve had a very productive six years. I think we’ve made four shows over the last six years. Complete World of Sports in 2010, Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) in 2011, Complete History of Comedy two years ago, and now Long Lost, that’s four shows in six years, I think, is the most we’ve ever made in that period of time, so, we’ve been busy.
BOGAEV: Reed, Austin, it is just a pure pleasure to chat. Thanks so much.
MARTIN: Thank you.
TICHENOR: Thanks, Barbara.
WITMORE: Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin run the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Their newest work, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), has its East Coast premiere here at the Folger in April 2016. Reed and Austin were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
“O, If a Muse Of Fire Be the Food Of Love, Let’s Eat!” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Wendy Nicholson at public radio station KRCB in Rohnert Park, California, and Jeff Peters at the studios of Marketplace in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.