On Stage: spontaneous Shakespeare | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: spontaneous Shakespeare 

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The crowd gathers quickly: an angry, weary mob still wearing their shabby work clothes, their dirty shirts and scuffed shoes. Dog tired but mad as hell, they mill around the door. Then, following some unseen cue, they begin to chant, "Jack Cade! Jack Cade! Jack Cade!"--the name of the leader of a peasant rebellion that nearly toppled Henry VI.

Three policemen standing nearby, their uniforms a beautiful, clean, electric blue, watch warily. "Jack Cade! Jack Cade! Jack Cade!" One takes out his billy club and nervously taps his palm.

At the front of the mob an unshaven butcher in a blood-stained apron and a large man with a loopy, shit-eating grin begin punching their fists into the air at every beat. "Jack Cade! Jack Cade! Jack Cade!" The crowd follows suit, and the chant grows louder. The butcher gives the sign, and they rush into the auditorium, up the aisle, and onto the stage, shouting wildly.

This is Shakespeare's Herd. Or most of it. This ragtag troupe of non-Equity actors gathered together by director Frank Farrell and assistant director Barbara Harris has been meeting every Monday for the last two months to indulge in a little free Shakespeare. Tonight they're performing the last run-through of one of the bard's seldom produced plays, Henry VI: Part II. Remarkably, the Jack Cade scene, which comes in the second half of the play, was never rehearsed. It was created spontaneously by the actors on the night of the play's performance. Even more surprising, it was acted out backstage and was meant only to prepare the actors for their stage roles.

For the uninitiated, free Shakespeare is a technique that Farrell has been championing ever since he founded the now-defunct Free Shakespeare Company in the early 80s. His current foray into free Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Herd, evolved out of classes on Shakespearean acting he taught at Center Theater last summer. "The whole idea of free Shakespeare," he explains, "is to put on Shakespeare's plays with no rehearsals and no director."

The technique was first developed by British director John Russell Brown as a radical alternative to the restrained, polished, "nicely controlled" methods of producing Shakespeare's plays, which Brown believed flatly contradicted the true "explorative and fluid" spirit of the works. This method brings a freewheeling, improvisational energy to the words, and if you stand backstage you can feel that energy as the actors wait tensely for their cue to enter and as they exit a scene beaming.

Following Brown's dictum that "each performance should be 'made' at the time of performance," free Shakespeare actors are deliberately underrehearsed. Farrell gives only the most rudimentary instructions--"Get on! Louder! Get off!"--during the two run-throughs that precede "opening night"; Harris holds the prompt book and supplies skipped or forgotten lines--even during public performances. Otherwise Shakespeare's Herd is completely on its own most of the time.

Not all actors cope equally well with such creative freedom. "It can be very stressful," Richard Fries complains. That sentiment is echoed by fellow ensemble member Robin Chaplik: "This is a hell of a lot more demanding than more traditional productions, because it could easily become total chaos."

But many actors find themselves inspired by the spontaneity and unpredictability. "You have a good rehearsal," John Farrimond says, "and you leave thinking "Wow! This is really working."'

And when things come together, as they did during Jack Cade's rebellion the night I saw the run-through, the results can be amazing.

"This is absolutely insane!" says fight choreographer Dawn Alden, grinning widely. "All these people running around, not knowing where you are or what the next scene is. Or what you're supposed to be wearing. Or who is in it with you. And all the time you're hoping by the grace of God or the muses it will happen. But then I like a good challenge."

Farrell's grand plan is to do all three parts of Henry VI in free Shakespeare style. Shakespeare's Herd did part one in October and November and is now performing part two on Mondays at 7:30 through January 10 (no performance December 27) at Footsteps Theatre, 6968 N. Clark; call 465-8323.

Henry VI, Part III will be performed at 7:30 on January 17, 24, and 31 and February 14 at the Greenview Arts Center, 6418 N. Greenview; call 508-0085. In honor of Shakespeare's 430th birthday, the troupe also plans marathon performances of all three parts of Henry VI sometime in April.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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