‘Spontaneous Shakespeare!’ show coming to town
By Lou Fancher
To thine own improvisational self be true.
Although not the exact words spoken by Polonius in Act I, Scene III of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” truer words might never be spoken if said by an actor in the Lafayette-based group Synergy Theater.
The theater company led by Artistic Director Kenn Adams performs full-length improvisation plays bristling with in-the-moment creativity. Structured on the sturdy spine of rigorous playwriting principles and with actors well-versed in improvisational techniques, Synergy brings “Spontaneous Shakespeare!” on May 5-6 to Danville’s Village Theatre.
Three weeks before opening night, the actors are in a rehearsal room tucked into a corner of Lamorinda Music Store in downtown Lafayette. The cast includes Adams, Justin Carns, Shane Walker, Ben Piper, Lynn Shields and Nikki Vilas, gently underscoring the action on guitar.
Warm-up has them playing a Shakespearean word game: tossing hither, forsooth, anon, thou and knaves like volleyballs as they dart and dodge in a mysterious almost-touch form of tag. The single words grow into lines — “bring me thou thy vile villain” and “be thee a good friend.” The mood becomes serious, conveying deep implications of love, mortality, family. Next is a scene-setting exercise in which two actors dialogue and establish location, character and mood while reaching a climactic moment of tension or crisis in two minutes.
“It’s fun and frightening,” says Shields about taking spontaneity and vulnerability into the public realm onstage. “I love the challenge.”
Shields in her day job is a clinical psychologist who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety, depression and trauma.
“This really is my therapy. It allows me to be less neutral with my emotions.”
“Spontaneous Shakespeare!” is likely to include comedy and multiple emotions, but underneath the two-act performance, there is surprising toil. To become steeped in 16th century vernacular and create on-the-spot characters of depth, the cast has been reading and dissecting actual Shakespeare plays. The audience before each show will supply each character with one “endowment,” like an occupation, a secret or a driving compassion. Shakespeare’s writing, the actors know by experience, is packed with metaphors, similes, sexual puns, rhyming lines and supernatural or magical allusions.
“Shakespeare is great for improvisers because he often had no set and all the descriptions had to go into the words,” says Adams. “Trees had to be mentioned. They speak their internal thoughts. There’s purpose in every word.”
The combination of nimble responsiveness to fluctuations and fluid classical acting technique reliant on formal theatrical principles culminates onstage and comes from years of practice.
“I think it’s the highest art,” Adams says. “People spend their lives trying to be a great playwright, actor, director or choreographer. But an improviser has to be great at all of those things.”
Central to success is the element that makes any piece of theater a masterpiece: solid writing.
“It’s more than lighthearted, joke-type work. It’s craft, not performance games or shallow comedies. When audiences get realistic characters and great stories with tension and conflict, they love it.”
The nuts and bolts are simple: a strong plot leads the action from beginning to end while sympathetic characters played truthfully engage the audience. Listening is key.
“If I say ‘castle’ in a scene and you turn it into ‘battlefield’ because you weren’t listening, the audience is confused. If a scene plateaus, we talk about that in notes sessions and discuss how it could be ‘written’ differently. We don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds,” says Adams.
Rules apply. In a play with two 45-minute acts, the conflict or “significant event” happens at 25 minutes. By then, characters and their world have been introduced. An event shatters that world, characters are endangered and tested. A question about what will result leaves everyone in suspense during intermission.
“The second half of the play, we answer that question,” says Adams happily.
Improvisation applies to other sectors of life: Synergy offers classes and workshops at several Bay Area locations, and Adams leads training sessions with corporations like Chevron, Integris Health and others. Being spontaneous, making your partner look good and building on a partner’s ideas are three interpersonal rules of improvisation theater that he says apply to the workplace.
“Instead of adversarial relationships and a leader worrying about whether or not they look good, a leader stays geared to the present. The contributions feed into the whole. It leads to increased productivity: everybody works more effectively as a team.”