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Pirating Shakespeare: Improv Lessons & Results

Everyone who came out to the Teen Center’s Pirating Shakespeare program shared in some spontaneous laughter, confused head-scratching, and story building. We used improv exercises to get everyone thinking and acting creatively. Improv, short for improvisation, is a form of theater in which actors make up the show as they go along. Certain bits may be suggested from the audience, such as a setting or a role, but by and large the show is invented on the fly.

The program was called "Pirating Shakespeare" because theater pirates would sometimes attend Shakespeare’s plays, write down the dialog and actions as best they could, and take their imitation script to another theater to sell tickets to “the latest Shakespeare play.” Of course, some of the details would be off, and the story would change in places, which is what we did to different Shakespearean plays using improv exercises.


We started by playing a few games that any group can enjoy, including:

Worst Day Ever:
Everyone forms a circle. One person starts by asking their neighbor, for example, “Did you hear about Jack? He had the worst day ever!” then describing something terrible that happened, let’s say he woke up late. The neighbor then turns to a new person and says, “Did you hear about Jack? He had the worst day ever! First he woke up late, then it turned out his house was on fire!” And so on around the circle until the story becomes too long to remember.

World Championships:
Someone suggests a household chore, such as folding laundry or washing the dishes. The other participants act out the chore as if it were the World Championship of _____. Another participant, acting as judge, chooses the World Champion of that activity.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:
Three people sit in a row, assigned the roles of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. A fourth person plays someone with a problem, however small or large, and asks the row for advice. For example:

Me: “My cat is stuck in a tree. How do I get it down?”
Good: “Call the fire department and have them retrieve your cat.”
Bad: “Chop the tree down.”
Ugly: “Call the fire department and use their hose to knock the cat down.”

Because I Said So:
Everyone forms a circle. One person starts by asking their neighbor, for example, “Why is the moon up there?” The second person would have to come up with an explanation, such as, “Super-smart mice launched it into space a long time ago.” The second person then turns their answer into a question for the next person in the circle: “Why did mice launch the moon into space a long time ago?” And so one around the circle. If someone cannot come up with an explanation, they can declare, “Because I said so!” to start a new topic.


We applied these exercises to scenes from some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and got the following results, including motorized getaways, happily dismissing drama, and wrestling moves.

Julius Caesar

Act I, scene ii: Cassius tries to inflate Brutus’s ego and convince him that he should be ruler instead of Caesar.

In the play: Brutus brushes off Cassius’s compliments and says he loves Caesar like a brother.

In the improv: Brutus and Cassius throw Caesar into the sea to be eaten by sharks, then they hit the road until they run out of gas (in their CAR??) and retire in Paris.

 

Act III, scene i: Everyone begs Caesar to release Publius, but Caesar says he has made up his mind and refuses.

In the play: This is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and everyone proceeds to murder Caesar.

In the improv: Not only does Brutus take part in killing Caesar, but he kills all of the co-conspirators too and rules Rome with an iron fist.

 

Romeo & Juliet

Act II, scene ii: Romeo pines for Juliet outside her window, when he hears her pining for him.

In the play: Romeo reveals himself and he and Juliet agree to get married.

In the improv: Romeo asks Juliet to run away with him and they burn the place down, killing all of Juliet’s relatives who would get in their way.

 

Act III, scene iii: Friar Lawrence informs Romeo he has been banished from Verona, which breaks Romeo’s heart to be apart from Juliet.

In the play: Romeo finds Juliet while she is under a sleeping potion and, believing her to be dead, kills himself.

In the improv: Romeo stays out of Verona and starts a new life assuming odd jobs.

 

Act V, scene iii: Juliet wakes up from her sleeping potion and finds a dead Romeo.

In the play: She tries to kiss the poison off his lips, but it isn’t strong enough to kill her, so she exclaims, “O happy dagger” and kills herself with a knife.

In the improv: She emerges from the tomb kind of freaked out and embarks on a new life without such dramatic men.

 

Hamlet

Act I, scene v: The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet and says he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and that Hamlet must avenge him.

In the play: Hamlet becomes obsessed with finding out the truth of this vision and hates his uncle Claudius more than ever.

In the improv: As ghosts are not real, Hamlet disregards the message and lives a full life as part of the royal family. He does not like that his uncle is married to his mother, but he doesn’t lose sleep over it, either.

 

Act III, scene ii: Hamlet’s play, written to get a response from Claudius and reveal his guilt, has ended, and Horatio is comparing notes over Claudius’s reaction.

In the play: Hamlet’s friends agree that Claudius looked really guilty.

In the improv: Hamlet determines that if Claudius was really a king, he wouldn’t have time to attend his nephew’s play and must be guilty just for being there.

 

Act V, scene ii: Hamlet and Laertes duel for sport, Laertes with a secretly poisoned sword, in front of the King and Queen.

In the play: The duelists switch blades and Laertes is cut with the poisoned sword, killing him.

In the improv: Laertes still gets his sword knocked out of his hand (this was acted out in the moment with markers), but refuses to come anywhere near Hamlet now that the blades have been switched. Instead, Laertes resorts to wrestling moves such as the Spear (also known as a shoulder block takedown) to knock Hamlet out.

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