On Monday, July 18, the Taffety Punk Theatre Company will take over Folger Theatre to plan and perform a “bootleg” version of Henry VI, Part 1—in a single day. Actors and the rest of the team will come together in the morning, work through the choices in each scene, and then perform the entire play the same evening.
The show is an intense experience for actors and audience members alike. We spoke with Taffety Punk’s artistic director Marcus Kyd, who is directing this year’s play. For him, the gripping, sometimes madcap, effort makes it “the most exciting day of the year.”
Inspired by his actor friend Ian Gould, who dared Kyd to stage such a one-day production, the company began its bootleg plays 10 years ago with Cymbeline. The choice of the play was inspired by the actor Emery Battis, a long-time favorite of Washington, DC, theater audiences. Then in his 90s, Battis was known to many of the Taffety Punk actors. “Battis was a tremendous guy,” says Kyd. As Gould pointed out, when it came to Shakespeare’s plays, Battis would proudly say, “I’ve done all but one,” meaning Cymbeline. In the end, Battis was not able to take part in the show, but it was still done in his honor.
Founded by actors who had been members of punk rock bands, Taffety Punk uses the language of music to label the impromptu shows. “Bootleg” music is recorded without authorization and published without permission. For Kyd, the term in this context means the shows are unauthorized and “appear out of smoke”; they’re the “great unsanctioned.” He also calls them “nearly spontaneous Shakespeare.”
Taffety Punk didn’t intend to start a yearly tradition, but the Cymbeline production has led to annual one-day shows. As with Cymbeline, the bootleg play is typically one that is very rarely performed. “Usually none of us have done it before,” says Kyd.
“It is an opportunity to do plays that we may not otherwise be able to do,” says Kyd, creating an unusual chance to explore different Shakespeare works. Having done Troilus and Cressida, “I see wonder and amazement in it now,” he says. “The same applies to Henry VIII, even though it’s also weird and bizarre.” Compared to the commonly performed plays, “these other plays—these not-Hamlets—they’re also great. Wacko, but great. King John is another example.”
When asked if the challenges of one-day Shakespeare productions help actors and audiences connect in a different way, Kyd replies, “No, not in a different way, but in an ideal way.” He adds that “it’s built-in active listening” for actors, who listen intently both to catch their cues, and to move the story forward. The lines are spoken “with alacrity,” he says. The sense of walking a theatrical tightrope draws in the audience: “Will it work?” Amusing choices are made, such as lightsabers for a duel in The Two Noble Kinsmen. But, in the end, if all goes well, actors play the truth of the scene, taking the audience with them. At the heart of “nearly spontaneous Shakespeare,” says Kyd, you need a company of actors who trust each other.
Have you seen a “nearly spontaneous Shakespeare” production like this one, whether it’s Taffety Punk’s bootleg Shakespeare or another “Shakespeare-in-a-day” project? We’d love to know about your experience. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
To learn more about Taffety Punk, listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, “Punk Rock Shakespeare.”
To learn more about the Shakespeare plays that are less commonly staged, listen to our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, “Rarely Performed Shakespeare Plays.”