What’s it like to start rehearsing a Shakespeare play only hours before performing in front of an audience?
Taffety Punk Theatre Company in Washington, DC, makes this bold theatrical experiment every year with Bootleg Shakespeare, choosing a different Shakespeare play each time. This summer it’s Henry VI Part 3, culminating the trilogy begun in 2016 with Part 1 and continued in 2017 with Part 3. The free, one-night performance at the Folger on July 16 stars company members Tonya Beckman, Dan Crane, Kimberly Gilbert, and Esther Williamson.
This excerpt from a 2014 interview with director Marcus Kyd on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast captures some of the Bootleg Shakespeare process and energy:
MARCUS KYD: Once a year, we challenge ourselves to do what we call the Bootleg Shakespeare. And, what it is, we decide what play we’re going to do, and we assign roles, everybody memorizes their lines, and then we show up the day of the show, we rehearse for about six hours, and then at seven o’clock, with all the fights and the dances and the scenes and the music and everything, we go on, whether or not we’re ready.
REBECCA SHEIR: That sounds like a nearly impossible task. For people who don’t live in DC, they should know that you pick this play, and it is just, it’s bootlegged together, it just comes together. That’s a daunting task.
MARCUS KYD: Fights and all. It is daunting. And all of the actors say the same thing. You know, when we’re rehearsing all day, and everybody’s… You’ll never not be nervous about it, you’re always nervous about it. But everybody says, “God, why in the hell did we agree to this?” And then, you know, halfway through the show, when it’s working, everybody’s really excited, and every time we bring in somebody new, we watch them all day, because their face is just aghast at what’s happening, and, by the end of the show, they run right up to me, and they’re like, “When’s the next one? When’s the next one?” It’s really a rush for actors.
We talked with Marcus Kyd again about Taffety Punk’s upcoming performance…
What drove the selection of the Henry VI trilogy for Bootleg Shakespeare?
After each bootleg, we go to a bar and celebrate, and it is usually there in the corner of the bar where we choose the next play. It can be quite a sport. I listen. And listen. And eventually, it becomes obvious that one title is being mentioned more than the others. Once we made this choice — to do the Henry plays — we were locked in. It has been an amazing ride thus far.
Can you give us your quick take on what happened in Henry VI Parts 1 & 2? And is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in Henry VI Part 3?
I have been flabbergasted at how topical these plays are. I hope the United States doesn’t devolve into a civil war like the Wars of the Roses. But the zealous fighting between the factions, and infighting within the factions, is insanely modern. Or, more accurately, insanely human. Which is of course why we love Shakespeare. Personally, I am looking forward to watching the York children grow into their dubious and conflicting selves. And Jamie Beaman’s final moments as Warwick. And most of all that great scene with Richard and Henry near the end. So scary!
Has anything changed about the way you approach Bootleg Shakespeare since you first started doing these performances?
Each play presents its own challenges. A big thing we have learned is to do fights and dances early. I think we have gotten better at sequencing rehearsal to make the most of the day. For example, the last scene of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is so hard to make work we started there at the top of the day. The actors made some incredible decisions that morning and then we used what we learned to inform the rest of the play. Still, we don’t always have time to run a scene. If we know a big monster is on the horizon we sometimes stop in a less complicated scene and say, “We trust this will work,” and then move on.
For Bootleg Shakespeare, it seems like you shy away from the big plays that everyone knows (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, etc). In your opinion, what’s Shakespeare’s most underrated play that you think should be performed more often (and why)?
Great question! That was certainly how it started. Of course, we have to do Richard III next year after doing a three-year set-up for it. I think the most underrated play is Troilus and Cressida. We had a BLAST working on that. So much rich material. And high stakes. I wish more people gave it a go.