Most actors prepare for a show by getting into costume, putting on their makeup, or maybe doing some kind of warm-up. For one lucky cast member of Shit-Faced Shakespeare, an improv-style show that has been running in Boston for the last year, their pre-show prep also involves getting drunk.
Currently playing at Laugh Boston and the Davis Square Theatre, Shit-Faced Shakespeare has been playing in the UK since 2010 where it has been seen by over 40,000 people. This summer, the show will move around to OBERON, Cinema Salem, and even out to Framingham. There is also a production in Austin with plans to open the show in Atlanta and Minneapolis. “There seems to be no lack of fresh audience if you [go] just two miles down the road,” said Daniel Berger-Jones, producer of the Boston run.
The conceit is this: A group of actors perform a streamlined, one-hour-long version of a Shakespeare play. Every six months or so, a different play is rotated into the mix. With Much Ado About Nothing—currently running now—nearing retirement, titles under consideration for the next slot include As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet. At each performance, one actor performs drunk.
According to actor Mac Young, a Shit-Faced Shakespeare vet who was terrifically drunk at a recent performance that I attended, drinking begins four hours before showtime. “We all spend time together with the drunk,” Young said, “make sure they get a nice dinner, put some music on, hang out, do other fun things, and the end result is usually somebody who’s drunk and in a really good mood by curtain.”
The idea is that the drunk is pretty well-cooked by the time the show begins, but a small bar sits just offstage if the audience feels that the actor isn’t drunk enough: The action is stopped, they are handed a beer, and the show continues. “It’s really fun,” Young said, “but you better not have anything terribly important to do the next day.”
Producer Berger-Jones heard about the UK production and got in touch with the British company that originated the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “They were kind of skeptical at first,” said Berger-Jones, “and said ‘Why should we come to Boston?’ And we said, ‘Well, it’s a drinking town!’ I think even we’ve been surprised by the longevity of it.”
Skepticism comes up a lot with Shit-Faced Shakespeare, even for Berger-Jones, who was skeptical about the concept early on. “It’s a marketing gimmick, let’s be honest,” he said. “It’s a crazy gimmick that makes people go, ‘Oh, well I guess I should see that.’ And then you get into the theater and you realize that there are two things that happen: One is that people who would never otherwise go to the theater are suddenly sitting there and—whether they like it or not—receiving the story of a Shakespeare play in Elizabethan language. For me, that kind of sealed the deal. The other thing that happens is that these actors are putting themselves in their most vulnerable position. You don’t know what’s going to come out of you when you’re drunk.”
When Young joined the show, he, too, came in with a healthy amount of skepticism. “I guess I was afraid that it was just going to be a public display of drunkenness, and that’s not to say that’s not what it is, but to my mind that’s not where most of the humor comes from,” he said.
“There’s so much humor in watching a show get disrupted,” said Young. “I’m an actor in other contexts, too, and you just never see a show on stage go that far wrong. I get really into the humor that comes out of that kind of unexpected disruption, and then you have the other people having to deal with that in the moment. For me, that’s the fun part.”
SHIT-FACED SHAKESPEARE. LOCATIONS AND TIMES VARY. SHIT-FACEDSHAKESPEARE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.