Punk Rock Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 5

How can young people connect with Shakespeare?

It's a question that confronts each generation.

Members of Taffety Punk, a Washington, DC, theater company, have taken to heart the mission of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century.

Rebecca Sheir, host of our Shakespeare Unlimited series, talks with Taffety Punk founding member and Artistic Director Marcus Kyd about how he and a group of classically trained actors—who are also ex-punk rockers—are giving new meaning to the term "band of players."

From Bootleg performances of Shakespeare's plays—rehearsed and staged in a day—to Riot Grrrls all-female Shakespeare, recordings of punk versions of Shakespeare's Sonnet 71 and Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech from Romeo and Juliet,  and the Generator series of experimental works, Taffety Punk is defining Shakespeare for a new generation of theatergoers and theater makers.

Marcus Kyd is a founding member and artistic director of Taffety Punk Theatre Company.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company's mission is to establish a dynamic ensemble of actors, dancers, and musicians who ignite a public passion for theater by making the classical and the contemporary exciting, meaningful, and affordable. Taffety Punk received the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company at the 2008 Helen Hayes Awards.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © July 2, 2014. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Let the Sounds of Music Creep in Our Ears," was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul; Garland Scott, associate producer.

Previous: Shakespeare Outdoors | Next: Shakespeare in Translation


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. How can young people connect with Shakespeare? It's a question that seems to confront each generation. Here's one idea.

[CLIP from Taffety Punk, Sonnet 72]

WITMORE: Under the distortion, that's Shakespeare's Sonnet 72. It's performed by members of a Washington, DC, performance troupe that has taken to heart the mission of bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century. The troupe is called Taffety Punk, and it's their story we are going to hear in this podcast. We'll call it, "Let the Sounds of Music Creep in Our Ears." Marcus Kyd is one of Taffety Punk's founders, and he's the troupe's artistic director. He's interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: So, Marcus, when we think of a band of players, there's kind of this old-time traveling theater troupe. But you've kind of taken that term, "band of players," quite literally. Can you talk about how Taffety Punk started, because the word "band" is clearly quite important to the story?

MARCUS KYD: Well, some of us, when we started, had been in bands. Some of us, actually, when we started, were still in bands. And we all realized that we shared that, like, we were classically trained actors who had befriended each other, and then we realized that we shared this punk rock thing, and we always look at both of those worlds almost as equals. We know that Shakespeare's company had a regular company of players, and that's gone in America. I mean, there's a few people doing it, here and there, and there's a lot of young groups that are starting to do it again, but we just committed ourselves to trying to sustain that, because, we feel like a band or a dance company or... I mean, even the guys at the fire department, people that work together a lot, can, I think, achieve greater things.

SHEIR: So when you decided to become a theater company, did you kind of use what you learned, operating a band?

KYD: That's all I knew, I mean [LAUGH] in terms of operation. You know, I did plays. I had never run a theater company before.

SHEIR: So, given that you did start as a band, and now here you are, a theater troupe, what do you think, then, sets you apart, given that your origin was so different, probably, from most other theater companies?

KYD: I think that's a big one. I think we also... one of the things that was important to us early, was to incorporate dance and music, since music was obviously important to all of us and many of us had heavy training in movement, mask work. Erin Mitchell, who is one of our co-founders, is a choreographer. So, here we had all of this training to do stuff, and like, I love plays, you know, I love going to plays, I love being in plays, but we weren't being asked to do 90 percent of our training. So I think that sets us apart, too, is that you're more than likely to see a scene, suddenly, in a play, be extra-choreographed, or somebody burst into song, that's not going to be musical theater. It's going to be what we feel like the play needs.

[CLIP from song in Much Ado About Nothing:]

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Sigh not so, let them go.

SHEIR: So given that you started as a band... Teamwork, collaboration, ensemble, those are probably concepts that seem to be really important to Taffety Punk.

KYD: Mm-hmm, absolutely.

SHEIR: Can you give an example of a project where you all...?

KYD: Oh, yeah, certainly. Once a year, we challenge ourselves to do what we call the Bootleg Shakespeare. And, what it is, we decide what play we're going to do, and we assign roles, everybody memorizes their lines, and then we show up the day of the show, we rehearse for about six hours, and then at seven o'clock, with all the fights and the dances and the scenes and the music and everything, we go on, whether or not we're ready.

SHEIR: That sounds like a nearly impossible task. For people who don't live in DC, they should know that you pick this play, and it is just, it's bootlegged together, it just comes together. That's a daunting task.

KYD: Fights and all. It is daunting. And all of the actors say the same thing. You know, when we're rehearsing all day, and everybody's... You'll never not be nervous about it, you're always nervous about it. But everybody says, "God, why in the hell did we agree to this?" And then, you know, halfway through the show, when it's working, everybody's really excited, and every time we bring in somebody new, we watch them all day, because their face is just aghast at what's happening, and, by the end of the show, they run right up to me, and they're like, "When's the next one? When's the next one?" It's really a rush for actors.

This year, we're doing the Bootleg Hamlet, but the first quarto of Hamlet, which is a garbled, crazed text, that many people can't explain. They think, if I have time to talk about it, [LAUGH] there's a lot of theories about it, that it's a pirated text, that people were in the theater memorizing words, and then going and writing them down later, or that it's a touring script, or that it's an early draft, or that... my favorite one is that the actor that played Marcellus went down to the printer, and just, kind of, stole the play, and bootlegged it, exactly, because all the scenes Marcellus are in are nearly perfect, but the rest of the play is garbage, you know?

But we're going to do it straight, and it's half as long as the Hamlet we all read in school. It was called the "bad quarto" for years, which had a... it had a scholarly adaptation to it, but, of course, the first thing you hear is "bad quarto." The funny thing is, it tells the story, but it is the play that we recognize, with a few surprises. And Kimberly, one of our company members, is actually, having looked at it for a few weeks, convinced that it is the superior version of the play. [LAUGH]

SHEIR: Really?

KYD: Yeah.

SHEIR: But no "To be or not to be"?

KYD: "To be or not to be" is there, but instead of, "To be or not to be—that is the question," he says, "To be, or not to be, I that is the point". And those kinds of adjustments are throughout the thing. "To be or not to be" is a shadow of itself, it's half as long. It almost doesn't make sense, actually, the way it is in that edition. So, it's going to be harder work for us.

SHEIR: So, Bootleg Shakespeare is definitely an example of your rock and roll approach to Shakespeare, if you will. What about Riot Grrrls?

KYD: The Riot Grrrls are terrific. We started that in 2008. We heard that the Shakespeare Theatre Company was doing an all-male Romeo and Juliet, and everybody had the same reaction, especially all the women in the company, were just like, man, like, again? And then somebody said, "We should do one that's all girls." And all the women in town went crazy about the idea and just threw themselves at us, so we had all these great actresses available to us, as well as our company members. And we opened about the same week that the other company did. It ended up being really fun, because it looked like rival... I mean it was, rival shows. I don't think any love was lost between the companies, you know, because, like, we'd do something very specific, and they'd do something very specific. Five minutes into the show, I forgot completely that there were women on stage playing men, and we decided it was something we wanted to keep doing, to give the women access to parts that they don't normally get to play. Kimberly Gilbert cured me of wanting to play Mercutio.

SHEIR: So speaking of Kimberly Gilbert, a fantastically talented actress who is part of Taffety Punk, there's a production you are going to be doing that explores something you did a few years ago, maybe a bit more deeply, though. I'm talking about Enter Ophelia, distracted. Can you talk about this production a little bit, because it seems to sort of encapsulate your whole approach to Shakespeare?

KYD: Yes, and it's a show I'm really excited about doing. Kimberly and I came up with this idea, way, way back. It was probably our second show... it was like February of 2005, I think. She and I went to school together. We've known each other for a long time. We're obsessed with Hamlet and Ophelia and their relationship. And I know some people get drunk texts from friends, you know, in the middle of the night. I get texts from Kimberly sometimes at three or four in the morning, that are ideas about maybe Ophelia's doing this, or maybe Ophelia's problem is this, or what if Hamlet said that. Like, that's how obsessed we are about it. So, we decided to look at Ophelia's madness scene, we were doing a collection of Shakespeare scenes, sent through various filters. I did Sonnet 72 as a punk song, with a band.

[CLIP of Taffety Punk, Sonnet 72]

KYD: So, we were just trying to find little things that we could do to twist the stories around. And we're looking at Ophelia's speech, and Kimberly had this question about, like, "What is madness?" What is the big question there, like, "What happened to her mind?"

[CLIP from Enter Ophelia, distracted:]

Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark?

How now, Ophelia?

KYD: So, we thought, well, we could go after it sonically, and create a soundtrack with all sorts of sounds laid into it, that she could be responding to. So we removed the other characters from the scene and just brought her on, with this manipulated sound, that was poking her the way another actor might.

[CLIP from Enter Ophelia, distracted:]

Well, God dild you. They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be.

KYD: And we developed it together. We sat down, you know, for hours going over the script, and then deciding, like, well, what is this noise, and, you know, can there be, like, a door slamming in her mind here. We move through, like, static, and then music, and then it all overlaps. It was very exciting to work on as a soundscape. And occasionally, we go back to it. She just presented it this year, that same monologue. And the more we talked about it last year, Kimberly and I really wanted to extend this into Ophelia's whole story. From the top of the play, where things might, she might even have hope, to this descent into madness. We're going to bring in some dancers, that could be the other characters, or could be agents, like the agents of her mind, and really push the boundaries of time and space, her reality, and her unreality.

[CLIP from Enter Ophelia, distracted:]

And so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
          They bore him barefaced on the bier
          Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny,

SHEIR: Here's something I wanted to ask you, and don't get too sheepish here, but your attitude about theater in general, and also about Shakespeare, is that you think that perhaps Shakespeare is seen too much as just literature. You have to get it up on its feet in order for students, for young people, to see what it was really meant to be.

KYD: That's very important to me. In fact, I wish they would stop teaching Shakespeare as literature. There is something missing. It's like handing somebody a script, and saying, "Here read this play," is like handing somebody who doesn't know how to read music a score, and saying, "Listen to this." And I think that's what a script is. I think that's what a play is, when you read it. I still have to work to read plays, you know. I get a lot of plays submitted to me that I have to give to the other actors, because I don't see the material the way, right away. I'm trapped in the words, and we have to get it up on its feet. We have to test this stuff out.

SHEIR: So Marcus, given your lifelong love of Shakespeare, all your professional experience with Taffety Punk and otherwise doing Shakespeare, what is the most important part of Shakespeare, would you say?

KYD: There are many, many, many important things, but the most important thing, and I have to start maybe... I have to do this a little bit backwards. While we're training in school, we're often asked to inhabit the work with more size. We're constantly told it is bigger than you, it is bigger than us, and that happens with Shakespeare and a lot of classical plays, the Greeks. And I've come to realize that it is, in fact, asking us... the work itself is asking us to be as big as we can be. There is nothing going on in Shakespeare that is unaccessible to us. But the work drives us as actors to the depths of human experience, so that the audience can join us on that journey, and I think it asks everybody to be a little bigger. It asks everybody to forgive each other more. It asks everybody to take their life seriously. And there is nothing more important than that. That together, we acknowledge those things.

SHEIR: Well, Marcus Kyd, thank you so much.

KYD: Thank you.

[CLIP from song by Taffety Punk:]

Don't take my pride,
Don't want to see a man cry.


WITMORE: Marcus Kyd is artistic director of Taffety Punk Theatre Company in Washington, DC. Marcus was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

"Let the Sounds of Music Creep in Our Ears" was recorded and edited by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is our associate producer. It is part of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series, which 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.