Shakespeare with a Drunken Twist
“For a quart of ale is a dish for a King,” William Shakespeare wrote in The Winter’s Tale. Following this to the letter, one of the players in Milwaukee’s Bard and Bourbon Theatre Company will be a glistening example of royalty during their upcoming production of Macbeth (drunk) at the In Tandem Theatre (628 N 10th Street). From May 25-28, the company will stage the classic story of madness and murder while one member of the cast becomes progressively drunker throughout the evening. The chosen performer will take several actual shots and try to keep up with the action as they become more and more blotto.
Bard and Bourbon was founded in 2014 by Milwaukee actress Katie Merriman. Merriman has directed all five of the company’s productions and will be both director and actor (the chosen drunk during one performance) for the upcoming run of The Scottish Play. Merriman recently took time to talk to Around MKE about having fun with theater, what a half-dozen shots can occasionally unlock and partying hard with a time-traveling Shakespeare.
So, what is Bard & Bourbon all about?
It's a poorly kept secret that Bard & Bourbon's whole goal is just to share our delight of Shakespeare with people who might not have previously thought of Shakespeare as "fun." Getting someone drunk is certainly an easy and effective way to do that. Not only does it strip away any hint of the stuffiness often associated with classical theater for those who haven't seen these plays before, it also adds an element of surprise and unpredictability for those who have seen them many times.
I assume that drinking before and during stage shows has a pretty long (although probably not well-regarded) history in the theater. Where did the idea come from to fully embrace this as part of the show?
We're actually part of a growing group of theaters specifically doing drunk Shakespeare. That might be in part because the contrast of drunkenness with heightened language is particularly fun to watch or it might just be because there is a strong sense that Shakespeare's actors were probably pretty tipsy themselves. To the best of my knowledge, the first group to formalize the concept was Shit-faced Shakespeare, who introduced it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We were personally inspired by the Drunk Shakespeare Society in New York, who does a version with five actors and some puppets. Our approach is the most traditional in terms of staging and rehearsal, but we have embraced the frequently used convention of small, nontraditional casts with extensive double casting, since it's fun to watch the drunk actor trying to keep all of those roles straight.
What is the hardest thing about acting while drinking?
Well, remembering all your lines and fight choreography is always going to be a challenge when you're drunk. And, yes, fight choreography! Macbeth features five fights including three broadsword fights. Every actor is involved. We take many steps to ensure actor safety during fights, including substitute weapons.
I think the thing that most surprises those of us who have performed drunk is the feeling of vulnerability. Because we use a format where only one of the actors is drinking, you are very aware of everyone paying extra attention to you throughout the performance. Fortunately, our casts and audiences alike have been incredibly supportive and the times an actor fights their way through forgotten lines or breaks character can be some of the most hilarious or compelling moments of the evening.
On the flip side, many actors find that the stripping away of inhibitions lets us listen and act much more honestly as our characters. I've seen many truly heartbreaking moments of performance come from our drunk actors being so raw and present. There's no way to predict what that drunk performance will look like.
And, as a related question, what is the hardest part about acting alongside someone who is hammered?
We all have to be on our toes a lot more to help the drunk actor if they forget their lines, of course. But honestly, the hardest part is helping them maintain the perfect level of drunkenness. We give the actors a few shots at the top of the show to get things going and then continue to hand them shots during the action onstage. How the alcohol affects you can vary wildly from night to night so it falls on the sober actors to make a judgment about when the drunk actor has had enough or if they're still far too competently sober.
What do you expect Shakespeare himself would say, where he to travel to 2017 in Milwaukee and witness one of your shows?
I think he'd insist on taking part! We have an incredibly strong respect for the text and verse so, if anything, he might criticize us for taking his words far too seriously. Whether he was in the audience or in the show itself, though, I think we'd all be in for one epic after-party.