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Katherine Bourne as Rosalind in Shakespeare in the Bar's 'As You Like It'

State Of The Arts: You Want Some Beer With Your Bard?

by Jerome Weeks 22 Jul 2016 6:20 PM

For two years now, a tiny Dallas theater troupe has been performing Shakespeare’s plays in unusual outdoor locations. They do each show only twice, so the performances are crowded and hard to get into. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to talk about what it’s like downing some draft beer while the Bard gets performed all around you in a courtyard tucked behind a friendly saloon. 

Our extended conversation:

JWJustin, I’m going to play a bit of an outdoor Shakespeare performance recorded a few months ago. It’s from a speech that normally doesn’t get anything like the response it gets here:  “All the world’s a stage [audience cheers and applauds]. And all the men and women are merely players, They have their entrances and their exits, and one man in his time plays many parts.  [More cheers and applause.]”

Justin: That’s from the comedy ‘As You Like It,’ right?

JWRight. That’s the character, Jacques. It’s his famous set piece, The Seven Ages of Man, when he muses on how we all grow up, grow old, grow feeble and die.

Not exactly the stuff I’d be greeting with cheers, Jerome.

JWRight. So we can draw three possible conclusions here. One, this isn’t your typical outdoor Shakespeare. Two, this isn’t your typical Shakespeare audience because they’re applauding themselves for recognizing something pretty easy to recognize.

Or three, some of the audience members may be drunk.

Why drunk?

JWIt’s a performance by the group Shakespeare in the Bar.

How much alcohol was involved with this production?

JWThis is Shakespeare. Performed. In a bar.

The basic idea may sound like a bit of populist pandering: “We’re not snobby high art, we’re in a bar.” But for all the prestige we’ve heaped on Shakespeare, bars are generally where he did his plays. In that general neighborhood, at any rate. His Globe Theater was built in the middle of whorehouses and pubs and bear-baiting pens.

True, the nobility did come by – on boats from across the river – and they could pay more to sit in the safe, comfy seats in the balconies above. But much of Shakespeare’s crowd  – the groundlings or “penny stinkards,” as they were called, the people who paid a penny to stand in the open yard right up against the stage – they’d taken the afternoon off and were in the process of getting stinking drunk before they hit the brothels.

And Shakespeare in a Bar certainly plays up that whole rousing, heckling, carnival mood as well. They have a local brass band perform beforehand – and even during the play, often punctuating scenes (or vamping while a late-arriving actor finally makes his entrance). They’re the 8th Street Orkestar – a regular Balkan brass band. And it’s amazing how much a live band oompah-ing away like that just signals to you, “This is going to be silly.”

So you’ve got beer, you’ve got a band, you’ve got a liquored-up, lively crowd. But I’m wondering, how was the Shakespeare?

JWGood question. When Shakespeare in the Bar started two years ago, I was wary of it as a novelty. I mean, outdoor Shakespeare in general tends to be broad and simple. Or it tends to lean on the relaxing pleasures of just being outside on a summer night.

Like going to a rock concert outdoors. Or like going on a picnic.

JWExactly. And there is definitely some pandering to the audience with Shakespeare in the Bar, some hammy playing to the groundlings. I mean, with ‘As You Like It,’ for example, Jacques is a melancholy-bordering-on-cynical nobleman who makes sour comments about all the crazy lovers and country folk around him – as with the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech. But actor Marcus Stimac, whom I’ve enjoyed before, delivered his lines like each one was a bravura knockout punch. He played them like audience favorites, the hit tunes. He didn’t sound world-weary; he was having a ball.

Even so, I hadn’t counted on the real affection you feel watching actors having the time of their lives a few feet away from you. It’s a re-confirmation of Margo Jones’ idea – she’s the Dallas pioneer who promoted in-the-round stagings. What you lose in scenery, she argued, you can gain in intimacy and audience interaction. By the end of the evening, you’re, like, boozy friends with everyone in the place.

The beer helps.

What’s more, Shakespeare in the Bar is only done on Mondays – because some of the actors are in regular shows the rest of the week. So these are young performers doing roles they might not get a shot at otherwise and they’re doing them only once or twice. And they have deliberately rehearsed the show maybe twice.

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Your standard Shakespearean Nacho Libre wrestling match. All photos: Zach Huggins

That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

JWThere certainly are stumbles – or the occasional pause when you realize someone’s forgotten something.

But amid the dropped lines and some of the rather obvious character choices, what you also get is that electric feeling of actors doing this for the love of it, actors knowing they have this one chance to go for broke, so let’s take it. All that lends a real freshness here, a frisky riskiness, to coin a phrase. You want to see them succeed, but frankly, you also wouldn’t mind it if they blew it completely. It’s fun, either way.

I asked Katherine Bourne, one of the group’s founders – along with Alia Tavakolian and Dylan Key – about this. The entire approach is hardly new. New York City has seen ‘environmental’ stagings of plays in bars. In Chicago, Bourne saw Backroom Shakespeare, one of the early proponents of this whole approach, and she herself was trained in an acting technique that stresses knowing your lines, knowing your character – and then kinda winging it.

“And I found that really freeing,” she said, “a freedom from what I’d done before which was very, very planned, right down to the second.”

So it’s almost like improv Shakespeare.

JWAlmost. It has that ‘anything can happen’ feel. I mean, they’ve memorized their lines and director Dylan Key has established, ‘This is where you come in and that’s where you need to end up.’ But little else in the scene has been mapped out. In fact, they don’t even call Key a ‘director’; he’s the ‘navigator.’ So, as you might imagine in such close quarters, there’s a fair amount of actors goofing with individual theatergoers or shamelessly milking a moment.

Now, it’s easy to overstate the significance or success of Shakespeare in the Bar. They’ve certainly become critics’ darlings, and their shows are definitely packed. But the group has done mostly popular comedies; even when they’ve done a tragedy, it’s a crowd-wowser like ‘Richard III’ – in which, you may recall, Richard spends much of his time wisecracking directly to the audience and happily killing people. I wonder how well Shakespeare in the Bar would do with more mixed-emotion or straight-out downer plays like ‘Measure for Measure’ or ‘Timon of Athens.’

But then, not even the Dallas Theater Center or Shakespeare Dallas has the minor bravery to risk any of those works, either. So it’s unfair to hold the Bard in the Bar folks to a standard not even the big boys try to meet. But no one around here seems willing even to take a shot at ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ let alone ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ which can be terrific when well done. With less investment at stake, Shakespeare in the Bar could be the kind of company to show up other theaters’ craven choices.

In any event, these shows are also staged in the courtyards behind the Wild Detectives or 8 Bells Alehouse. And those hold 300-350 people, tops. This is not like an established theater company that needs to fill those 350 seats five nights a week for three weeks in a row, five shows a week – and then put on another, whole new show a month later. Shakespeare in the Bar does two, three shows a year – for a total of six performances. So add it all up, and this isn’t a huge audience we’re talking about. A single matinee at the Winspear Opera House would hold more people than Shakespeare in the Bar’s entire season.

But here’s the other side of that perspective: Bourne and her friends have done all this with a spirited style, some acting chops and very little else, other than some goodwill, a few loans of costumes or props from theater friends and a fair amount of social media smarts. They have no home office or theater, no sets, no costume storage, no administrative bureaucracy. Interactions with the public are done pretty much through Facebook and Twitter. There’s no phone number you can call. This is absolutely bare-bones, no-frills theater.

But, I must stress again, with beer.

And so they attract a young millennial crowd that many arts groups would outright sell their marketing departments for. It is true that if you see a Shakespeare Dallas production or one of the DTC’s efforts with the Bard, you’ll see a fair number of twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings in the seats as well. There’s that whole date-night, picnic-under-the-stars experience that Shakespeare Dallas offers, for instance. But what you’ll also see in those two theaters are families: older folks and young kids.

And no one’s taking their 10-year-old to Shakespeare in the Bar. And as for 80-year-olds in a bar, well, they’re generally there for other reasons than theater appreciation.

JWExactly. So on average, here, you get a much more concentrated, twenty-to-thirty-something crowd out for a date and drinks and fun. It’s not a huge audience but it’s definitely a devoted one. So those 350 seats often have a thousand more people vying for them online the day they become available.

You can see why drinking establishments are happy to have Shakespeare in the Bar perform in their courtyards – especially on Monday nights, a bar’s deadliest revenue night. It must be said, however, the brave staff of these establishments can be completely overrun, as can their supplies. My wife and I arrived 30 minutes early for ‘As You Like It,’ figuring, yes, it’d be crowded but we could still get a beer and a bite to eat while watching the show. We quickly discovered the place had already run out of food – utterly. And our poor, harried waitress couldn’t get a beer to us until 40 minutes into the show. Our sightlines weren’t great – you need to arrive hours early to get those – and I’m a crotchety enough old soul to wonder how many nights I’d be willing to sit all evening, crowded and hungry, on a hard wooden bench.

Even for high-energy, high-alcohol-content Shakespeare.

So let’s admit it: For many theatergoers, there is something to be said for thoroughly professional operations at regular establishments. With real box offices and padded, reserved seats.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare in the Bar is precisely the kind of homegrown, web-smart, go-for-broke, youthful arts effort North Texas needs more of. Shakespeare in the Bar even gives most of its revenue to a charity of the actors’ choice, while the company also keeps the tickets very affordable. I just about fell out of my chair when Bourne said, ‘It’s not a revolution if the poor can’t afford it.’

This is so un-Dallas, somebody must already be figuring a way to run them all out of town.

In the long view, though, this kind of Bard-and-Grille – even when done in most American cities, not just Dallas – is most likely a short-term, just-out-of-college romp. I could be wrong, but it’s unlikely it’ll become significantly bigger and more established – not if it’s going to retain its freewheeling spark and spirit. You start having longer runs, more performances, and you’re talking about having to pay your actors, lease costumes, set up a more regularized, reliable ticketing system, maybe firm up a season schedule and, God forbid, sell subscriptions. Plus, more performances means, essentially, more familiarity with the material. The actors aren’t riffing so much. Crazy spontaneity diminishes.

So as much as this Bard in the Bar project offers the communal, erratic, high-wire introductions to the plays that young people often sorely need (instead of your standard, high-school, English-class Death Grip), it may be best if it retains its brief, freewheeling nature. It reminds us, once again, yes, in the hands of motivated, talented actors, this moldy old Elizabethan stuff really is still as fresh as morning dew, still rambunctious, still fulfilling.

And then the next generation will have the happy surprise of learning that all over again for themselves.

So enjoy it now while you can.

Monday night’s show is ‘Romeo & Juliet,’ and it’s already sold out, but typical of the smarts of these folks, they keep 50 tickets ready for walk-ups starting at 5 pm. Just to keep things accessible and impulsive and fresh.

So there’s still a chance.

JWYep. That’s because Bourne has also figured out how this city really works.

“Dallas loves a party,” she said, “and they love to be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, I was there on that night. It was really hard to get in.’”