Shakespeare for all of us

I attended the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival‘s “Much Adoe About Nothing” in Kenton City Park. I loved it. The cast were a fun and energetic bunch, and the intimacy of our close proximity on the grassy lawn, with the players’ antics spilling freely among the audience, made the whole spectacle a delight.

The most eye-opening part of the production was the “Original Practice” itself. The troupe is dedicated to reviving the actual acting techniques of Shakespeare’s day, when new plays were being written and performed at breakneck pace, and an acting company didn’t have the luxury of extensive rehearsal and meticulous preparation. Instead they carried their lines on scrolls, and charged in with “limited rehearsal; an onstage prompter; fast-paced, energetic acting; and lots of audience interaction.”

OPS Fest recreates that practice, and the result was enthralling. I love live Shakespeare, and I’ve seen some fine performances, but what I experienced at Kenton park on Sunday was like nothing I’d seen before. You might think reading their lines from cue scrolls might render the performances lifeless, but not so! Instead the play crackled with life, brimmed with humanity, and embraced messiness.

A peculiar magic happened, and it was this: a forgotten cue or flubbed line ceased to be a mistake. It became, rather, a part of the landscape, a natural element of the total experience that we accepted wholeheartedly as the actors stood, just feet away (or sometimes crouching and scampering among us), letting themselves be exposed to us, messy and raw. A “mistake” became a source of delight, and the prompter’s correction just the punchline on the joke. As OPS Fest says on their “About Us” page:

“We know that [Shakespeare’s] actors were far more like our professional athletes than like our actors: they knew the rules and were virtuosos at PLAYING, whatever the situation of the moment. Audiences had to be lured from the bear-baiting and brothels down the street; Shakespeare wrote fun, bawdy, outrageous popular entertainments for the masses (that also happen to have astounding poetry), and the masses came to participate in every play—think Seahawks, not PCS. When we play Shakespeare, we play.”

That’s what I saw at Kenton Park: the joy of play. And it struck me that it might not be too different from the joy I experience when playing a story game, in those times when I truly let go, live in the moment, and share a vivid waking Dream with my friends. Certainly, the OBS Fest players are still working from a script, not creating their own original story…but I saw that same sense of sponteneity, of embracing the present moment, of flow, that’s present in the greatest roleplaying experiences.

And I saw something else. I saw Shakespeare, long since elevated to a high-falutin’ Culture-with-a-capital-C delicacy for refined epicures, brought BACK down to the accessibility of the masses where it started. I saw Shakespeare that was accessible and casual. I saw Shakespeare for the PEOPLE, man. And it did my heart good. Because I believe that we’re a species whose souls are nourished on story, and our survival depends on reclaiming the well of story from the monopoly of mass-marketers and drinking from it undiluted and fresh. And OPS Fest “Much Adoe About Nothing” felt like a little bit of that. I started to wonder what it would be like if this phenomenon continues to spread—and indeed it has spread, as OPS Fest enjoys its third year, and Trek in the Park enters its second. And last year saw a local theater company produce Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. These productions are more than just fun larks; I believe they’re bringing modern-day icons down to earth, seizing myth from its corporate keepers and redistributing it among the people.

That’s something that excites me. Something that sends me spinning in giddy little circles just to contemplate. It’s my entire purpose in roleplaying, and the goal of everything artistic in my life. And the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival has got it nailed.



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