Utah’s Independent Theater Companies Offer Fresh (and old) Takes on Shakespeare

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.”That is the first bit of instruction Hamlet gives to the players in Act Three of the eponymous play as they set the stage for a play-within-a-play that will expose King Claudius’s regicide/fratricide. There are multiple interpretations and metacommentaries of Hamlet’s speech. The scene can be played as lampooning nobles who think to lecture actors on their craft (likely a #relatable experience for the time). Some have also suggested that this is William Shakespeare’s genuine advice to actors, layered within the context of the play. In essence, how Shakespeare would have you perform Shakespeare. Four hundred years later, theater companies still endeavor to perform in the spirit or manner which the bard intended. However, just like Hamlet’s speech, there are multiple interpretations of that intent—made evident by the number of independent theater companies we have in Utah that are invoking that spirit with wildly different results. 

Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s Taming of the Shrew. Photo courtesy of Grassroots Shakespeare

Grassroots Shakespeare

Grassroots Shakespeare’s founders call it an original practice company and try to emulate how Shakespeare’s shows were originally staged. “What that means for us is that we don’t have a director, so it’s collaboratively staged by the cast,” says managing director Berlyn Johns. They have a rehearsal process of just two weeks, and the presentation is minimal and unpretentious, leaving the actors and lines with plenty of space to shine. “We found this low-concept, clear blocking approach gives the audience an easier time of it all because we keep everything as straightforward as possible. The audience can just engage directly with the text that Shakespeare wrote, how Shakespeare wrote it…but keeping it a little more contemporary,” says Johns. Those contemporary changes include gender-blind casting and cutting scripts to a punchy, one-hour runtime. 

  • Behind the scenes: Grassroots Shakespeare is a non-profit that, in addition to pop-up shows, also tours local schools with high-energy, age-appropriate productions
  • Upcoming shows: Summer tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V (May–July) at local parks around the state. grassroots-shakespeare.com
Dancing bears appear on stage in New World Shakespeare Company’s production of A Winter’s Tale. Photo courtesy New World Shakespeare;

New World Shakespeare

“We call it New World Shakespeare because we live in the new world, and we wanted to bring a more modern connection to the classic scripts,” says founding artistic director Blayne Wiley. New World modernizes the staging—incuding scenery, costuming and setting—to make the material more accessible and less intimidating to audiences, but the original language remains intact. “​​It’s just all about context,” says Wiley. “If you understand what’s going on and you can present it in a way that is more current, then the audience is going to relate to it more.” As examples of contextual updates, New World staged Romeo and Juliet twice, each adding new, contemporary layers of meaning to the star-crossed lovers narrative. In the first, both Romeo and Juliet were played by women as women. In the second, they cast older actors as the lovers living in a Verona retirement home. “It made it even more profound in a way because it was their last chance at love,” says Wiley. 

  • Behind the scenes: New World plans to get 501 non-profit status. Donations will provide a small stipend to actors and help spotlight various charitable organizations whose missions relate to an aspect of each show. (For example, Henry IV promoted Continue Mission, which supports injured veterans.)
  • Upcoming shows: The Merry Wives of Windsor (May 4–18), All’s Well That Ends Well (Aug. 16–25) at the Alliance Theater and The Lion in Winter (Nov. 1–10) at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. newworldshakespeare.com

Mad King Productions

Two words set Mad King apart from other companies: drunk Shakespeare. “Our whole motto is bringing Shakespeare back to the groundlings,” says artistic director Carleigh Naylor. “Shakespeare had a lot of inappropriate jokes, and it was all for the common man, not the aristocracy.” Mad King takes liberties with the language and sets the plays in the modern age. “That way our audience knows what’s going on if they’re not big Shakespeare fans.” Each night, a handful of cast members can elect to drink. The rest remain sober. The audience can donate cash to vote, and the actor with the most votes has to chug at intermission. During the show’s second half, each donation buys a drink for an actor. A fourth-wall-breaking cast encourages the audience to engage with them. “They drink right along with us. We have toasts, and it’s fun,” says Naylor.

Behind the scenes: Donations are divvied up among the cast at the end of the show. Especially with alcohol involved, Mad King’s founders say they take seriously safety and consent. The Merry Wives of Windsor will have a roller-disco angle, but only sober actors wear skates. The sold-out erotic show, Spicy Shakespeare, employed an intimacy coordinator. Madman Madriaga, communications and marketing director, says, “We want a safe place for all cultures, denominations and identities to do Shakespeare. I’ve been in the theater scene here for over 20 years, and I have seen racism in local theaters. I wanted to make a safe place where that isn’t a problem for people like me.”

  • Upcoming shows: The Merry Wives of Windsor (opens June 14th) at Alliance Theater. madkingproductionslc.com

Misrule Theatre

While not a Shakespeare company, the Lords of Misrule Theatre Co. certainly embodies the spirit of a clever performance at the Globe Theater packed with chaotic groundlings…wrapped in an avant-garde, community-first ethos. Creative director RJ Walker invokes the philosophy of the great director Peter Brook: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage.” Walker says, “You don’t need props. You don’t need costumes. You just need people to tell a story. And coming from a poetry slam background, that really resonated with me.” Misrule Theatre likewise eschews playwrights, directors and conventions. “Everybody comes together and creates the show organically. We’re making the show up together as we go, and then we solidify it in rehearsals.” They start with the characters, general themes and improvise until they have a story. Those improvisation skills come in handy later, as Misrule Theatre has devised a way for the audience to disrupt and change the performance in real-time. Each production has a unique list and the audience can donate to choose an item on the list—everything from having an actor eat an habanero pepper on stage or forcing them to perform as a werewolf. It’s an environment with infinite possibilities. The company has also started the Miss Rule Sketch Show, a sketch comedy show created by writers and actors from Misrule Theatre’s free Open Improv workshops.    

  • Behind the scenes: Misrule Theatre is a non-profit that began as a way to support the houseless community in Salt Lake City and continues this kind of work with all donations benefitting local charities and mutual-aid funds. 
  • Upcoming shows: Shows are free to attend and seasonal; Court of Hearts (summer), The Haunting is You (Halloween), The Lord of Misrule (Christmas),  Feast of Fools (spring) and The Miss Rule Sketch Show (May, July, September, November) at Mark of The Beastro. misruletheatre.com  

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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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