Things to Do

Reinventing the Bard With the Improvised Shakespeare Company

The theater group brings its irreverent improv to Artisphere Friday and Saturday.

Improvised Shakespeare Company founder Blaine Swen (center) has actors bone up on Shakespearean language to enhance their comedic turns. Photograph by Alex Erde.

Improv requires quick thinking and a willingness to follow a story wherever it goes. But creating an entire 75-minute play—in Elizabethan English? That’s the gist of the Improvised Shakespeare Company, an all-male troupe that comes to Artisphere December 5 and 6.

ISC specializes in Bard-style plays inspired by a single audience suggestion. Recent prompts have included riffs on existing works—”Henry V Element,” “Richard III Part 12″—as well as topics such as “Justin Bieber.” Founder Blaine Swen lends authenticity by assigning actors to read Shakespeare plays, quizzing them on vocabulary, and arranging seminars with professors from Chicago’s Loyola University, where he studied. While shows don’t adhere strictly to iambic pentameter, he says the actors often fall into rhyming couplets that approximate the rhythm.

Cast member Joey Bland appreciates the structure: “We serve the improv gods before the Shakespeare gods, but having the canon to look back at gives us a shorthand, something to play to or against.”

Swen founded the group in 2005, and Thomas Middleditch, now the star of TV’s Silicon Valley, was an original member. They began with a five-show run on the student stage at Second City, the improv training ground, and by 2006 they had a regular gig at Chicago’s iO Theater, still their base.

The cast now numbers 19, allowing for three home shows a week plus about 100 days of touring a year. Swen hopes to expand the touring schedule, and Chicago performances have gotten a boost lately thanks to occasional collaborations with a big name—Patrick Stewart, whom Bland met on another project. Despite such a heavyweight actor’s involvement, Swen emphasizes that humor is the bottom line: “Some people get put off by the word ‘Shakespeare’ because they think it’s going to be too highbrow, but it’s definitely often lowbrow. Though the show goes off the rails all the time, it always comes together—that’s the excitement of it.”

This article appears in our December 2014 issue. Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.