It started with a simple idea: “Let’s get some actors together and read Shakespeare’s plays.”
Unexpected Company’s founding partners Brian Lynner and Lisa Norris-Lynner are self-confessed “Shakespeare Geeks.” Shakespeare is an ongoing topic of conversation in the Lynner household. Most of the conversations start this way: “If you were going to do a production of (Insert title of play), how would you….?”
Each of Shakespeare’s plays – even the very best of them – comes with a particular set of challenges, not the least of which is making sure that this centuries old play will resonate for a modern audience without losing the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s language. Making heightened language seem natural and conversational is a skill that even the world’s best actors are constantly working to perfect – and doing that requires putting that skill into practice by working through a play in performance.
But here’s the rub: producing a Shakespeare play is incredibly expensive. The plays require a large company of actors, and those actors have to have costumes – sometimes more than one. You have to have a set, props (including weapons), lighting, and sound. You may need live music. You have to hire designers, stage managers, production staff, plus other professionals that may include a fight choreographer, dance choreographer, voice coach, dramaturg, musical director, dialect coach, etc. You also need administrative and front-of-house staff. You need to find a performance venue, rehearsal space, and shop space – and that usually has a cost. You have to invest in marketing so you can sell tickets and get people to come see your show. And – if you want to keep the ticket prices affordable, you probably have to go out and do some fundraising because your ticket sales alone cannot help you meet your costs.
If you are a small company with limited resources – you end up wearing many hats – often too many hats to have the time and focus to what you really want to do: dig deep into Shakespeare’s text (which was your whole reason for doing the play in the first place!)
You can, of course, do a reading – but the usual process for staging a reading often skimps on rehearsal time. Some directors get caught up in trying to add blocking. Some actors don’t devote their full energy and attention to a reading, especially if you are asking them to volunteer – they just come in and “wing it.” After all, it’s only a reading. But Shakespeare’s plays are complex – to do them well, even as a reading, requires time and commitment.
Enter the Shakespeare Lab.
The Lab is a way of addressing the challenges of performing Shakespeare without taking on the expense of mounting a production. It’s a group of actors who come together under the guidance of director and explore the text in a working rehearsal process. At the end of the process, they present a reading of the play that the public may attend. No memorization, no choreography, very limited blocking, and no production values, although there are opportunities for designers and musicians to be part of the Lab process. And because you don’t have to worry about expenses or box office, it gives you the freedom to explore any play, in any way you want – even the “bad” plays that many theatre companies don’t want to tackle because they’re ‘box office poison.” And in a smaller community like Des Moines, how many people do you think would actually show up for a production of Henry VI Part 2?
The ultimate goal for the Lab – to work through every play in the canon. It will take years to get through them all – and some of them are worth looking at more than once – but that’s what makes it fun.
Especially if you’re a Shakespeare Geek.