In early July of 2016 I arrived in Melbourne, Australia, looking to get involved in the comedy scene and do as much improv as possible. A few weeks later I had the good fortune to find myself in the bright, upstairs room of the Dan O’Connell hotel for a Saturday Soothplayers rehearsal.
The Soothplayers, for those who don’t know, are a troupe of improvisers, actors, writers and all around theatre enthusiasts who perform improvised Shakespeare plays.
From my very first scene -- in which I played a young catholic confessor shamed by the exasperated town priest (played by Stephanie Crowe) into dropping her protestant lover and agreeing to commit more wholesome and regular sins instead, such as coveting things and taking the Lord’s name in vain – I was hooked. I was wholly intimidated by the thought of having to make up Elizabethan language on the spot, not to mention the occasional rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter, but it didn’t take long for me to let go of the fear go and have fun.
In my nearly 9 months as a Soothplayer I got to perform in a sold-out run at Melbourne Fringe, a monthly show at Hares and Hyenas bookstore, in a hay-filled barn at the country wedding, and at a month’s worth of shows at our Melbourne International Comedy Festival season.
One of the many (MANY) things that makes The Soothplayers so special, in my opinion, is our collective conscience and the way we imbue our work with it. We are a very progressive group, so much so that it would’ve been impossible for us to recreate “accurate” Shakespearean scenarios (if that had been our aim). What I mean by that is you would be hard pressed to find a Soothplayer willing to do justice to an improvised Taming of the Shrew or Two Gentlemen of Verona. Instead, we routinely let our conscience shape and alter our plays. For example, In a Soothplayers’ version of Taming of the Shrew, Katherine probably tames Petruchio, or, more likely, the two agree that human beings shouldn’t be “tamed” at all. A Soothplayers Two Gentlemen of Verona…. Just wouldn’t exist.
Somehow, unlike what I’ve just done, the troupe often manages to accomplish these changes without white-knighting too hard or sounding preachy.
Where many works by Shakespeare contain homophobic jests and misogynistic themes, many Soothplayer shows feature same sex marriages and strong female leads who don’t necessarily get married by the end of the play. I’ve seen or participated in Soothplays where women don armor and fight, men realize they love other men, people question the institution of marriage, or maybe even monogamy altogether, I’ve seen fairy orgies and princes who don’t get the girl, cross dressing that isn’t just a gag, strong female leads who aren’t evil or power-mad, and male leads who instead of displaying violent and toxic masculinity, draw conclusions from a sensitive consideration of all logical options.
What I came to realize is The Soothplayers aren’t just improvising Shakespeare, we are also revising Shakespeare.
Treading the boards with this team doesn’t just mean inventing an entirely new Shakespeare play using the styles, themes and language of the immortal bard himself (to borrow words from our onstage introduction), it also means improving upon the lessons learned. It means updating the texts to reflect a more enlightened and compassionate public. It means a rare opportunity to clean up some of Shakespeare’s more problematic works, and, in an overly indulgent and self-aggrandizing sense, a chance to change history.
I have come to believe that working in a genre doesn’t mean you must unconditionally love the work you set out to emulate. The best genre work also seeks to mercilessly mock and critique it. As emulators and admirers of Shakespeare’s work, we put ourselves in a unique position to both genuinely engage in his art, and, to cast our critical gaze towards it. Our work is both a love song to the bard and a chance to ruthlessly mock him. It’s a critique not just of him but of the society within which he was creating. Which is just an earlier version of the society in which we now live and create.
And, in case I didn’t mention this earlier because I was too busy geeking out, we do this all while being very, very funny. We are, at our core, a troupe performing improvised comedy. And we do this very well.
Sadly, I’ve recently been forced to part ways with my Soothies. Not, I hope, permanently, but perhaps for a long time. They will continue to perform their spectacular shows in Melbourne, Australia, while I will be attending grad school in Chicago. I haven’t even been gone a month but I already miss them dearly.
If I could, I would crawl back inside one of our revised Shakespeare plays and stay a while. Maybe catch one last fairy orgy. In my mind, these worlds we created are the sort of idyllic, post gender, post heteronormativity, post racial, free love, polyamorous, progressive dreamscapes that make conservatives everywhere shudder in fear. And you, dear readers, get the chance to enter one of these worlds anytime you see a Soothplayers show. And I, lucky as I am, got to go there weekly -- every Saturday from 2-5 p.m., in the brightly lit upstairs room of the Dan O’Connell hotel.