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Shakespeare’s Oeuvre Reduced For Laughs

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Aired 6/10/10

The Reduced Shakespeare Company turns the long and serious into the short and funny. In their most popular play, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" the three-man comedy troupe turns all of Shakespeare's 37 plays into a two-hour romp. We'll talk with troupe member Austin Tichenor.

The members of the comedy troupe The Reduced Shakespeare Company.
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Above: The members of the comedy troupe The Reduced Shakespeare Company.

TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," that's the name of a show performed by the appropriately named Reduced Shakespeare Company. If you think they're fooling around, they are. But then we should all be guilty of such foolishness. The "Complete Works" played for ten years at London's Criterion Theater, making it the city's longest running comedy. This weekend the show is coming to San Diego's Lyceum Theater for a shorter run, no doubt. Joining me to talk about it is Austin Tichenor, one of the new founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. And, Austin, thanks for coming in.

AUSTIN TICHENOR (Performer): You’re welcome, Tom. Thanks very much for having me. But I’m a little disappointed in the rain and the overcast. What the heck is this?

FUDGE: Well…

TICHENOR: Not your fault.

FUDGE: Sorry.

TICHENOR: Never mind.

FUDGE: Anyway, listeners, if you have any questions about abridging Shakespeare, you never know, you might, call us at 1-888-895-5727, 888-895-KPBS. Austin, this play, which you co-wrote along with William Shakespeare, comes with a health warning: not recommended for people with heart ailments, bladder problems, inner ear disorders, and those inclined to motion sickness. Now why’d you need a health warning?

TICHENOR: Well, because we do Shakespeare in ways that I think it was not – Shakespeare was not intended to be done. There’s a lot of physical activities, a lot of frenetic physical comedy. There’s a lot of verbal wordplay, and there’s, every now and then, there’s a slight touch of actual Shakespeare. Our goal is to get through it all in 90 minutes and sometimes we go a little fast and there’s some whiplash.

FUDGE: All, what, 37 plays?

TICHENOR: 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Also, I should clarify, I’m not one of the original authors of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Although Reduced Shakespeare Company has performed at the San Diego Rep several times in the past, this is the first time we’ve actually brought the show back that we created, the “Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).”

FUDGE: You refer to your style of theatre as vaudeville. What do you mean by that?

TICHENOR: It’s old. We’re old. We’re dying. It’s an old – No, it’s just – We refer to it as vaudeville because it sound – vaudeville’s sort of a catch-all term. In the eighties, they referred to it as new vaudeville because there was sort of this meta quality of commenting on the performance style as we were doing it. But what we realized is that we try to incorporate all forms of not only theatre but comedy, or it’s sophisticated verbal wordplay and fart jokes, you know. Falling – Something very smart and then falling down on our bums. You know, a little something for everyone.

FUDGE: Is this show an in joke? What I mean by that is, do you kind of have to know Shakespeare to really appreciate the comedy?

TICHENOR: Thankfully, no, because we don’t know anything about Shakespeare. I mean, between the 3 of us onstage, we’ve heard of most of Shakespeare’s plays. No, act – What’s fun is, you don’t need to know anything about Shakespeare to enjoy the show. If you like Shakespeare, you’ll certainly like the show but if you hate Shakespeare, you will love the show because I think we – Shakespeare’s been put up on the pedestal – on a pedestal by so many theatre artisans and critics and scholars over the years and we sort of take him down off his pedestal. In his day, Shakespeare was a showman, and he wanted to put butts in seats and he wanted to put on entertaining shows, and that’s what we want to do, too.

FUDGE: Were there any plays that were kind of difficult to turn into a comic bit? I mean, is “King Lear” funny?

TICHENOR: Well, the way we do it is. I mean, what we do – what we always say that we like to do is, particularly in Shakespeare, is, you know, cut out the boring characters and the minor, secondary subplots and get right to the sex and the killing, which is really what people want to see. And in the case of “King Lear,” we basically – he’s involved in an historical football game in which the crown is passed from one generation to the next but Lear is called because he’s a fictional character and so he’s fouled, he’s thrown out of the game. But we also discovered that Shakespeare’s tragedies are much funnier than Shakespeare’s comedies. Shakespeare’s comedies haven’t traveled quite as well as his tragedies.

FUDGE: Now, there are three guys…

TICHENOR: Yes.

FUDGE: …in the company, right? So you have to observe the Shakespearian tradition of boys playing women or men playing women.

TICHENOR: Umm-hmm.

FUDGE: Do you each…

TICHENOR: Not – Yes, go ahead.

FUDGE: I was just going to ask you, do you each specialize in a certain kind of comedy? Is – Does…

TICHENOR: Oh, that’s interesting.

FUDGE: Do you have different strengths and weaknesses?

TICHENOR: That’s an interesting question. What we do, it’s funny, because we’re a theatre company and we have a stable of actors, and I use the word stable carefully because we do have to be cleaned up after a lot, and fed. But we all have – we all each bring our own individual styles. We try to – Not only are we a theatre company, we’re also a comedy team. And so in the manner of some of the great classic trios like the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges or name some others, you know, we each have our own comic sort of persona. And so I am the eggheaded intellectual who thinks he knows more about Shakespeare than he does. Reed Martin and Mick Orfe, who will be playing here in San Diego, are more the bulletheaded enforcers, the Moe characters, if you will. I’m more of the Groucho. And then Matt Rippy, who’ll be here the whole time, is our – he’s our crossdresser, and he is in the show as well.

FUDGE: Austin Tichenor is one of the new founding members of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He wasn’t there right at the beginning but he’s founding anyway. And the Reduced Shakespeare Company is going to put on their show, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (sic)." It opens tomorrow and runs through the 20th at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. Give us a little bit of history of Reduced Shakespeare, how, even though you weren’t there at beginning, maybe someone told you…

TICHENOR: Yes.

FUDGE: …how it got started.

TICHENOR: Do you have an ancient recording of Greensleeves so you can play over this? Yes, back in 1981, we started as a pass-the-hat act. It was started as a pass-the-hat act by five people, who one of them went off to get a job and one of them went off because she got bored, and it ultimately became three guys, Daniel Singer, whose idea it was to create something called the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Jess Winfield, and Adam Long. These were the 3 original guys who started doing short versions of “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet” at Renaissance Fairs, both in Northern and Southern California. And then somebody said, well, you’ve done “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” why don’t you do all the rest of Shakespeare’s plays? And do it all in an evening? And they said, well, we’ve done two plays, there’s only 35 more, how tough could that be? And so then they literally did – they premiered it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987, thinking that would be the swan song of the company but that’s when the company started to take off internationally, started playing international festivals all over the world. And then – and got the company very famous in England and sort of the former English colonies but not so much in America. So I came along in 1992, right at the time when the company wanted to branch out and try to get more well known in this country, so we wrote our second show, "The Complete History of America (abridged),” which played here at the Rep a year ago.

FUDGE: Go ahead.

TICHENOR: No, and so since – well, from that, since then, we’ve continued to reduce large, unapproachable topics. After “Complete History of America (abridged),” it was the Bible, “The Complete Word of God (abridged).” And we played that all over the world. We played it in Israel. Of course, when we take it to Israel, it’s just a one act. And then we did “The Millennium: The Complete Musical (abridged): A Thousand Years of World History in 100 Minutes” and just to make it more difficult, we sang and danced. All the great books abridged, “Every Book You Should’ve Read in High School But Probably Didn’t.”

FUDGE: You know, you really are providing a public service…

TICHENOR: We…

FUDGE: …by giving the word of God, the abridged word of God, for instance.

TICHENOR: Thank you. Thank you for saying that because that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s certainly what we’re trying to do anyway.

FUDGE: Well, Austin, tell us a little bit about yourself. You describe yourself as an intellectual welterweight, disappointingly average despite having three expensive degrees.

TICHENOR: Umm-hmm.

FUDGE: How did you get involved with the company? I guess you told us that already.

TICHENOR: Well, I got involved because one of the founding members, Jess Winfield, and the next new founding member, my partner Reed Martin, and I, all went to University of California Berkeley together. So we knew each other from college days and so that’s when I came aboard. And they also knew me as a history major, which I was, a history major and a double – a drama, double major. So they thought that combination of history and drama would be good to write “The Complete History of America (abridged).” It was so good, in fact, that I needed to throw away everything I learned from that expensive degree because I ended up making jokes about the Gadsden Purchase and the lend-lease program, which had to be scuttled.

FUDGE: Okay, inappropriate jokes, I guess.

TICHENOR: Yes, wildly inappropriate jokes that nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.

FUDGE: Well, let’s get back to Shakespeare. Austin Tichenor, again, is a member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. They’re coming to the Lyceum Theatre this weekend and until June 20th. And I think you’re going to do a little bit of the show, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” Not the whole thing but an abridged version…

TICHENOR: Yes.

FUDGE: …of the (abridged).

TICHENOR: A completely abridged abridged version of the reduced thing. Well, I’m just so thrilled because, you know, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has finally gotten to be what I think it always should have been, reduced just to me. Just to me performing by myself. So I’m going to try to give you a little taste of, as I said, Shakespeare’s tragedies are funnier than his comedies. We couldn’t figure out a good way to do Othello, the moor of Venice, so of course we came up with our version. ‘Well, here’s the story of a brother by the name of Othello, he like white women and he like green jello, and a punk named Iago who made himself a menace because he didn’t like Othello, the moor of Venice. Now Othello got married to Desdemona. He took off for the wars and left her alone-ah. It was a moaner, a groaner, he left her alone-ah. He didn’t write a letter and he didn’t telephone her. Now Othello loved Desi like Adonis loved Venus, and Desi loved Othello ‘cause he had a big sword. He say I’m gonna shaft the moor. How you gonna do it, tell us. I know his tragic flaws and he’s too damn jealous. I need a dupe, I need a dope, I need a kind of a schmoe, so he found a chump sucker by the name of Casio. And he plants on him Desdemona’s handkerchief and Othello gets to wondering just maybe if while he be out fighting, commanding an army, are Desi and Cas playing hide the salami? So he come back home and he smothered the biatch and he thinks he pulled it off without a hiatch but that’s there’s a mealy actor, though, who we met in act four who say, yo, homey, she weren’t no ho. She were pure, clean, virginal too, so why’d you have to go and make her face turn blue? It’s true, it’s you. Now what you gonna do? And Othello say damn, this is getting pretty scary, so he pulled out his blade and committed hari-kari.’

FUDGE: All right, so Othello reduced…

TICHENOR: That was very abridged.

FUDGE: …to a rap.

TICHENOR: Reduced to a bad white guy rap. And that’s the kind of scintillating vaudeville entertainment you’ll be able to see.

FUDGE: Austin, it was a good white guy rap.

TICHENOR: Thank you.

FUDGE: I really – I really think it was. Austin Tichenor is a member of Reduced Shakespeare Company. They’re bringing their show, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" to the Lyceum Theatre in San Diego. The language of Shakespeare is something that I guess you play with. It’s something that a lot of people have a hard time understanding…

TICHENOR: Umm-hmm.

FUDGE: …and so how much do you try to keep pure and how much do you, I don’t know, prostitute?

TICHENOR: Well, we do – well, we’re in the theatre, so we’re little better than prostitutes. We do – Actually, we stick quite closely to Shakespeare’s language because there’s an expectation of it. What’s funny to me, and I think kind of rewarding, is that – is Shakespeare is so much in the popular vernacular in ways that, I think, many people don’t even appreciate. I mean, so many of his expressions, so many of his words, so many of his plot lines and characters, people come to the show and even if they don’t think they know anything about Shakespeare, they’ll go, wait a second, I saw that movie. Or, I read that in high school. Or, I’ve heard that expression before. And that’s kind of – and that’s really gratifying because I think we’re awakening in some audience members a kind of a sense of, hey, I do know this stuff. This stuff isn’t so intimidating. Because I think they sit there in their seats going, look, if these three jerks can make sense of this then clearly I can.

FUDGE: And…

TICHENOR: How tough could it be?

FUDGE: …it’s interesting how popular your play has become. I understand your plays have been translated, speaking of language and…

TICHENOR: Yeah.

FUDGE: …the use of language.

TICHENOR: Yeah.

FUDGE: It’s been translated into other languages.

TICHENOR: Yeah, they have. All of the Reduced Shakespeare Company scripts have been translated into, I think it’s up into probably in the twenties, 20 different languages. Gosh, Spanish, French, Polish, Hungarian, Catalan and I’m forgetting. I’m forgetting them all. But I think there is something – First of all, Shakespeare is universal. And I think a lot of our topics are, not in American history quite so much but the Bible, certainly, world literature. I mean, these things are sort of global in their reach, and when it’s translated into the local vernacular, it’s an opportunity to make other kinds of language puns. You know, pun – English puns but then puns on English puns. So I’ve never seen – I’ve read the German version of the Bible and it seems pretty funny. And I thought, wow, the Germans can make our version of the Bible funny, good for them.

FUDGE: Now, do you guys have anything to do with those translations or do you hand it over to the translator and say, here it is, do what you can.

TICHENOR: We hand it over. We hand it over because there’s very little we can do. You know, they – We have to trust that they can find the sensibility to it. I mean, what – It’s funny that we call ourselves a vaudeville because what is also going on in all of our shows is this ridiculous attempt by three guys who are too stupid to know that you can’t actually do a complete works of Shakespeare or all the great books or the complete Bible onstage in 90 minutes. But we don’t know that. And I think that that attempt is charming and I think that the teamwork involved and the rivalry amongst the three guys is very encouraging.

FUDGE: Well, talk about that teamwork a little bit more because it’s always interesting to me how people collaborate on a script. How do you write these shows?

TICHENOR: Well, the shows are written – they’re generally written from a germ of an idea. We find a large topic that we want to work on. For instance, the new show that the Reduced Shakespeare Company is creating right now, it’ll be our 7th staged show. It’s “The Complete World of Sports (abridged).” Every sport ever played on every continent by anyone by the – since the history of time. And we’ll take an idea. You know, we’ll just say, oh, well, I’ve got an idea for a sketch about baseball. I’ve got an idea for a soccer sketch. I, whatever it is, I’ve got it. And then Reed Martin and myself are the – have written every reduced Shakespeare Company show except "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." And so we just kind of bat it around, you know, to use a sports analogy. I’ll write a sketch, hand it off to him. He’ll go, eww, I don’t like this, change this, change this. He’ll hand it back to me, and I’ll go, no, I like it the way I was – I had it. And we’ll get it to the point where we put it on its feet and start rehearsing it and then that – the writer mind creates it one way and then the actors, even if it’s the same people, when we take it upon ourselves as actors, it suddenly comes out of our mouths different.

FUDGE: Right.

TICHENOR: And the interaction between us, amongst us, also leads to other discoveries. And so it’s a really interesting collaborative process. And then in performance, we get it in front of an audience and mistakes will happen. An audience will laugh where we didn’t expect it. Somebody will miss an entrance or we’ll forget a costume piece or something. There’ll be mistakes happen and we’ll go, gee, I wonder if we can incorporate that mistake next time?

FUDGE: Do you improvise onstage?

TICHENOR: We do. We do when – in the formative stages of a script. I mean, what we try to do, our – the goal of any actor is to make the performance look as if what they’re saying is happening right now for the very first time ever. That’s even more true in comedy. And so we get compliments a lot of the time, it’s very gratifying, that people say, oh, that looked like the whole thing was improvised. Well, actually, no, the whole thing was really pretty well rehearsed and kind of scrupulous down to the gesture but we try to make it look like it’s improvised, like we’re just saying it.

FUDGE: You describe these as sketches. Is it a series of sketches more than it is a play?

TICHENOR: I think it’s very – I think it’s safe to call it—and true to call it—sketch shows with plots. You know, like we’re going – my wife was a veteran of Second City in the ‘90s and she wrote and performed shows there with Steve Carell and Tina Fey and all those hotshots. And they do sketch shows that are, most of the time, unrelated. Our – we do sketch shows, too, but they are related by theme and the plot is always the same plot. These three guys have to get through this, and how will they do it? How – And there’s always comedy in how they fight about how they’re going to do it. There’s always comedy in coming up with the discoveries that they make that seem out of left field but they seem to make total sense once they’ve done it.

FUDGE: Forgive the serious question but are you a fan of Shakespeare? I mean, the actual plays, the unabridged plays?

TICHENOR: Umm-hmm. I totally am because it would be – I’ve been doing this play, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare," for 18 years. And it would – if I didn’t love it, I would have gone quietly insane. Or maybe not even quietly insane, just insane. We always, whenever we’re coming up with the subject for the next show, it’s got to be something that we really like whether it’s sports, whether it’s literature, whether it’s history, these are all incredibly fruitful and interesting topics. So, yeah, it’s always fun.

FUDGE: And this was a company, Reduced Shakespeare Company, that was started by a group of Americans, right?

TICHENOR: Yeah.

FUDGE: But you started in London.

TICHENOR: No, we started in California…

FUDGE: You started in California.

TICHENOR: …in Renaissance Fairs. Yeah. So people think that we’re English. We get that a lot. I think they think I’m English because I have – I’m very affected and pompous, and I have bad teeth. But, no, we’re an American company. We’re totally a California company. And I think that’s why we play, I think, so well, not only in England but around the world, is that we do Shakespeare the way the English and the rest of the world thinks Americans would do Shakespeare. And now I understand that here in town…

FUDGE: Intentionally, yeah.

TICHENOR: Right. Here in town right now, there’s a production of the Scottish play at the Globe, right?

FUDGE: I think so.

TICHENOR: I think there is. And so they’re taking two hours to do one play. We’re taking two hours to do all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays? I know where I’m going to get the bigger bang for my entertainment dollar.

FUDGE: Well, if you want that bang for your entertainment dollar, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" opens tomorrow and runs through June 20th at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. My guest has been Austin Tichenor, who’s an intellectual welterweight, and he’s one of the members of Reduced Shakespeare Company. And, Austin, thank you very much for coming in.

TICHENOR: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

FUDGE: I’m Tom Fudge. You’re listening to These Days. We’re going to take a break and when we return, we’re going to talk about a few other things that are going on this weekend in San Diego as we do the Weekend Preview, so stay with us.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)" opens tomorrow and runs through June 20th at The Lyceum Theater in Horton Plaza.

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