What’s the most Shakespearean experience in New York?
Is it some legend of stage and screen sweeping in to trod the Broadway boards as Hamlet, Cleopatra, or Falstaff? Hardly.
Is it free plays in the tranquil woods of Central Park? That’s a wonderful New York institution, but no.
Sleep No More? Negative.
No, the most Shakespearean experience in New York happens in unassuming pubs around the city where adventurous members of the New York Shakespeare Exchange (NYSX) mount bars and hightops among the drinking public to perform scenes with great vigor and skill. These are the people of ShakesBEER, a pub crawl performance series that enjoyed its thirtieth incarnation in Alphabet City this fall. Since 2011, NYSX has been bounding across bars, around and among pub patrons in neighborhoods all over the city to bring Shakespeare out of the theater and into the public, where the playwright’s work can reach an audience far wider than those who are willing to pay Broadway’s steep prices or wait in line all day in Central Park.
Have a drink. Watch Romeo and Juliet and Coriolanus. Cheer the heroes, boo the villains, laugh at the bawdy jokes, and raise your glass to join the crowd in a mighty “HUZZAH!” at the scene’s close. This is Shakespeare. This is Shakespearean.
The early-modern theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was a space that included a wide swath of class and society. The wealthy sat in elevated seats, but the masses who could only afford a pittance of an entry fee stood on the ground below the stage, close to the action. These were the groundlings, and they were Shakespeare’s most immediate and demanding audience. Lose the groundlings by failing to keep them engaged, and a show was doomed. So early-modern playwrights and performers worked the crowd, who were not shy about responding.
This powerful exchange between stage and groundling—so absent from tame modern theater—emerges uniquely in ShakesBEER. “Theater with a fourth wall separated from the audience literally didn’t exist when Shakespeare was writing,” points out NYSX artistic director Ross Williams, “and it’s hard for us coming from this modern performance style to understand what that means until you put the audience right there with you.” Williams and the company see the performers’ proximity to their audience as an asset rather than a liability: “From day one in our first read through we start talking about using the whole crowd: ‘there’s a moment that can be shared with the audience,’ ‘there’s a moment that can include the audience,’ ‘there’s a moment when you can use the audience to bolster your point.’”
Last fall’s crawl in Hell’s Kitchen was politically themed, featuring scenes from Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, and Henry VI, Part 2 that are set in courtyards, street corners, and town squares: public places full of people. Modern productions struggle to capture the collective responses of the masses so essential to the scenes’ power, but ShakesBEER has got groundlings built right in: the performers played directly to and with pub patrons and made them part of the rabble on the street. This year, as Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet bickered over who’s to blame for venereal disease, the crowd egged them on with groans and cheers and applause. These audiences were not there to watch the scenes. They were there to constitute the scenes.
The process of the crawl is simple: about 80 folks gather at the first bar where they get drink tickets and a drink koozie, and are invited to settle in. Before long, Williams rings a bell to signal the beginning of a scene, and up pop actors in everyday casual dress to perform a scene from high ground around the room: bar tops, tabletops, stools, window sills. The performance lasts about 20 minutes and then patrons finish their drinks and amble down the street or around the corner where it all happens again. Three hours, four bars, and drinks… well, that quantity is up to personal preference.
Oh, and if you happen to be hanging out in a bar hosting ShakesBEER when the crawl arrives? Congratulations: you get some free Shakespeare! “It’s a blast when we get the locals, when our audience is enhanced by the folks at the bar,” says Williams, who adds that “95% of the time locals are thrilled that this is an only-in-NY experience. 95% of the time they jump right on board.”
Kim Krane, an associate producer with NYSX who has produced, directed, and performed in ShakesBEER, calls the experience “some of the most fun acting I’ve ever done… and terrifying.” “What’s really great about ShakesBEER,” says Krane, “is how inclusive it is and how the audience leaves feeling like they were a part of something, not that they just were a spectator.”
That sounds great: but what if your audience is completely drunk and not particularly interested in Shakespeare? What if you show up to a bar ready to perform a scene from The Merchant of Venice to find a beer pong tournament in progress, as happened on one recent crawl. “They had been drinking all day,” points out Williams, and Krane reports “I had a dread in my stomach.” But if you think Shakespeare’s groundlings were completely sober, you’re fooling yourself, so like the earliest of the playwright’s performers, the NYSX crew had to make it work. “We brought them all into it,” says Williams, “by the end of it, they were so on our side, and we even got a junior board member out of it.” Krane points out that the beer pongers “were vocally participating in a helpful way. It turned out being lovely.”
But this is silly, right? A fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon, sure, but not in any way the high-born, traditional environment most appropriate for classical theater?
Williams disagrees. Since founding NYSX in 2009, Williams has dedicated the company to reaching audiences in unexpected ways, and he has found ShakesBEER to be a powerful vehicle to that end: “To me, ShakesBEER just opens up the Shakespearean idea and we can hopefully translate that sense of engagement into audience members,” he says, calling the crawl “Gateway Shakespeare: an amuse-bouche, appetizer-sized version of Shakespeare where an audience can learn that Shakespeare isn’t so intimidating.” “I’ve had a lot of people tell me they changed their minds about Shakespeare because of the pub crawl,” says Krane, “and getting people to change their minds about anything is powerful.”
NYSX produces a variety of productions, often in the traditional style expected of modern theater, but Williams and Krane both point out that ShakesBEER has come to influence and inform their work beyond the bars. “We’ve learned an incredible amount about how to use the language in this environment in a very specific and targeted way that is true to a Shakespearean experience and a Shakespearean approach that can reveal something more about the language,” says Williams, adding that when he directs in a traditional setting he finds himself thinking “Let’s look at this through a ShakesBEER lens in order to find a way that actually engages the audience. ShakesBEER teaches us to be open to that sense of play.”
Krane says that the ShakesBEER experience “taught me a lot about acting and having to share the text with people that you have not rehearsed. It really leads to discovering something in the moment. It really brings the text alive.” She reports that performing in the crawls “changed me as an actor,” prompting her in all roles to ask “where’s the play, where’s the fun, where’s the opportunity to share? It’s opened me up to be more joyous and share more.”
In Shakespeare’s England, theater was communal, something common to and shared by a broad array of people from across society. ShakesBEER works toward similar goals. Williams says “The biggest win of ShakesBEER is two things, the first is people saying ‘I didn’t know Shakespeare could be that fun’ or ‘it opened me up to Shakespeare in a different way,’ but the other one is watching the audience form a community throughout the day.”
Modern theater is frequently expensive, and Shakespeare is usually treated with a highfalutin reverence that makes his work intimidating, often alienating. But to be Shakespearean is to be communal, perhaps challenging in productive ways, but certainly welcoming and fun. This is the ingredient that Williams calls “a special sauce” captured by ShakesBEER.
Krane highlights “The amount of joy that comes out of the event. For me, we need that right now. It’s so joyous, and I think that’s undervalued.”
To that, hopefully, we can all put away any pretensions about traditional, classic theater, and raise our glasses in a mighty and communal “HUZZAH!”
Connect with New York Shakespeare Exchange for future ShakesBEER dates.