Alcohol-fueled productions of Shakespeare’s plays are the latest trend among theater circles in New York and other American cities. Several theatrical groups are experimenting with boozy versions of some of the brilliant playwright’s greatest works – with amazing results! Audiences seem to love watching drunk actors bungling lines at their favorite bars and pubs.
The Drunk Shakespeare Society is one of the groups at the forefront of the movement. Founded by Scott Griffin in New York, the team of actors perform Shakespeare’s plays while drunk, weaving improv comedy into the text. They proudly describe themselves as a ‘company of professional drinkers with a serious Shakespeare problem’. They routinely perform at various bars across the city, and they’re currently putting on a limited engagement at Quinn’s Bar & Grill near Times Square. Anarchy rules at these performances, as they invite the audience to drink along with them.
Griffin believes that audiences are drawn to the spontaneity of the act – these are anything-can-happen performances that simply cannot be replicated. “You can see so many amazing things YouTube and digital entertainment. What’s the point of going out to see live performance?” he asked. “You have to do things people can’t get at home.”
Photo: Drunk Shakespeare
It certainly helps that these drunken performances are a lot cheaper than Broadway tickets, which regularly exceed $100. In comparison, it costs only $15 to watch Three Day Hangover’s production of ‘Twelfth Night, or Sir Toby Belch’s Lonely Hearts Club Cabaret’ at McGee’s Restaurant and Pub near Times Square. That’s practically pittance for an original act in which the audience gets to participate, and sometimes even sing karaoke with the actors.
As David Hudson, co-founder of Three Day Hangover, pointed out: “Broadway, even off-Broadway, is expensive. Look at Shakespeare in the Park. There’s a reason why the lines are 9 miles long in the morning,” he said, referring to popular productions that are staged free at New York’s Central Park.
Ross Williams, a former actor and founder of the New York Shakespeare exchange, also joined the trend with his very own ShakesBEER performances last month. Through the series, he took thirsty theatergoers to four bars in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
At each stop, actors launched into a scene from the Bard’s plays, in front of patrons who had no clue what was going on. At the end of each scene, the ShakesBEER crowd simply moved on to the next venue. Williams proudly called the project a ‘roaming Shakespeare performance’.
So exactly how drunk are these actors? Well, drunk enough to make the whole experience exciting, but not so drunk as to forget their lines or pass out. It’s all about creating the right balance. At Drunk Shakespeare, only one actor in the play is given five shots of alcohol, and a different actor is chosen to do this each night. A member of the audience is invited to take the first shot with the performer, to prove that it’s really alcohol.
Then, that particular actor can interrupt the act by yelling ‘Drunk Point of Order!’ and make up a rule that the other actors have to follow. For example, during a recent performance of ‘Macbeth’, Damiyr Shuford who played Macduff, insisted that all his fellow actors address him ‘MacDaddy’ instead. When one of the actors kept forgetting to follow the rule, Shuford went backstage and got an electric razor, making an audience member shave a large ‘D’ into that actor’s chest hair.
Two members of the audience get to be King and Queen by purchasing special tickets. If the tickets aren’t sold, then there’s an auction at the performance itself, so the audience can bid for these positions. Once the King and Queen are announced, they get to enjoy a regal throne, crowns, a bottle of Merlot, caviar, and chocolates. And the best part is that they get to yell things like ‘Off with his head!’, which requires the performer to down more drinks.
Irrespective of the theater company, interaction is almost always encouraged between actors and the audience. “The performers drink on stage. We pull up an audience member to play a few smaller parts,” said Matthew Morgan, creator at Shotspeare productions. At Shotspeare, they believe in condensing the story and setting it up as a pretty rambunctious drinking game.
They’ve set it up so that at any point during the play, three audience members are given the power to yell ‘Shotspeare!’. When this happens, the cast has to stop and drink a shot. According to Morgan, Shakespeare isn’t very ‘digestible’ to the general public, and this is a great way to get the younger generation to get hooked on literature.
It sounds like great fun, but the Drunken Shakespeare Society is quick to issue a disclaimer: “We do not condone excessive drinking. Our actors have a regular rotation system and are carefully monitored at all times. Drinking in moderation can be fun. Drinking to excess can ruin your life. We promote healthy drinking,” they said.