Founded in 1981, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has become synonymous with Bard-inspired comedy. But success hasn’t stopped the RSC’s co-directors, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, from continuing to mine Shakespeare’s plays for hilariously inventive riffs. Their latest romp, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), playing through May 8 at the Folger Theatre, treats the purported discovery of Shakespeare’s previously unknown juvenilia. Written by a 17-year-old Will, apparently still working without an editor, the piece features 1,639 characters and clocks in at 100 hours. Because, according to Tichenor, the unearthed manuscript is “way too unwieldy to produce” and “textual evidence suggests that it was never intended to be performed,” RSC has graciously streamlined the play to 90 minutes. Sara Dabney Tisdale spoke with Martin and Tichenor about the continuing evolution of their special brand of comic genius.
This is the RSC’s 10th show. How has your company’s humor evolved over the years? How do you approach creating new work that feels fresh and funny?
Austin: I’m flattered that you think it has evolved. Because that’s good news. The challenge is that every time we write a new show, we want it to be the kind of show that our audiences expect, yet different. We joke that our jokes are the same—we just change the subject matter. But we really do try to come up with new jokes every time. The thing that’s helped is that over the years we’ve gotten less precious with the material we write.
Reed: Austin and I have collaborated on nine shows. We’ve known how each other have worked for a long time, but it continues to get easier. The biggest question is: Is it something that Austin and I are committing the next several years of our lives to?
Austin: Writing one show doesn’t teach you how to write the next show. The thing we do pick up—show after show after show—is to do less. The subject matter helps a lot. The larger more serious topics help us work a little harder to find the funny. Our last couple of shows, The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) and this current show, are not only funny—they’re also emotionally rich.
Tell me about your process for this piece.
Austin: This is the only RSC show that tells a single narrative with multiple plot lines over the course of two acts. Easily 60 percent of the script is genuine Shakespeare. We used an actual Shakespeare line wherever we could and wrote only new lines when we had to. When we workshop, we write it and direct it but we don’t produce it or act it. Even though Reed and I wrote it, Teddy [Spencer, the third actor in the trio who has performed the piece in development productions in Napa Valley and at Notre Dame University] knows it better than the two of us. We’ve just learned it for this premiere.
This show plays with some surprising mash-ups of Shakespearean characters: King Lear’s daughters morph into the Weird Sisters; Midsummer’s Puck and The Tempest’s Ariel pronounce themselves nemeses; Richard III pursues Twelfth Night’s Viola instead of Lady Anne. How did you choose relationships that would bear the most fruit?
Reed: I think we looked for character traits that would make for funny interactions, like the master motivator, Lady Macbeth, trying to motivate the guy who can’t make a decision, Hamlet. And this is obviously sort of a companion piece to the show that started it all. We wanted to cover characters that are not covered in that. That’s why we were focusing most on characters that don’t appear in The Complete Works.
Why did you decide to bring it to the Folger?
Austin: We went through a really long and arduous process: They invited us and we said yes.
What’s special about D.C. audiences?
Austin: Everybody here has a great a sense of humor. It’s just fantastic working here. It’s especially great being back in the springtime, not the summer.
Reed: They’re very perceptive, clearly, because they love us. This show is smart and funny and highbrow and lowbrow and verbal and physical, and the audience here is very smart and metropolitan.
RSC is celebrating its 35th year. You’ve produced plays, books, television specials, and radio shows; performed across the U.S. and in 17 countries; and become a household name to theater dorks and Jeopardy contestants the world over. What’s the next frontier?
Austin: To get even more reduced and more expanded. This show is a reduction of Shakespeare’s entire canon into a two-hour mash-up. But on the other hand, it’s sort of an expansion of his other characters, or the expansion of an idea—focusing more specifically. In the shorter term, the European premiere of the show will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August, followed by a U.K. tour in January.
Reed: We’re not just completely twiddling our thumbs!
Catch the Reduced Shakespeare Company in William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) through May 8 at the Folger Theatre,