Earlier this week, DeLisa hipped me to a Shakespeare event happening right here in New York. It was called the New York Shakespeare Convention, or ShakesCon for short, and was a gathering of independent Shakespeare-related theatrical companies for a weekend of artistic abandon.
I went on Thursday night and joined up with some fellow attendees to form a team for the Shakespeare trivia challenge. We had a nice balanced range of knowledge across our team, and ended up tying for first place! Between rounds, various groups performed scenes written or inspired by Shakespeare. I had a great time watching the performances and socializing with fellow Shakespeare fans. I even ran into Cassius, who I had never actually met in person and only recognized from her videos back in the day.
I missed Friday evening’s festivities, but I was able to return on Saturday for both afternoon and evening sessions. The afternoon consisted of more Shakespeare-themed presentations (plus one on Beowulf), hosted by a trio of Shakespeare improv artists called “As You Will” who were seriously impressive.
The evening’s performance was something called “5 Ways Shakespeare.” It was a complete performance of Twelfth Night, but each act was prepared and performed by a different company. To help the audience keep the continuity of the story, each character had a scarf with a color representing that character. The colors remained consistent for the character throughout the play, even as the actor playing that role shifted.
What really stood out to me was how cohesive the performance actually was, even without a unifying directorial vision and with five different philosophical approaches to Shakespeare explicitly articulated. The characters in this play are all so well defined that I think we’d have known who was who even without the scarves. When Toby and Andrew enter in each act, they couldn’t be anyone else. Olivia could never be mistaken for Viola. And Malvolio is Malvolio is Malvolio. Also, I hadn’t noticed before how much the characters describe what they’re about to do and what they’ve done, but it turns out that the text lends itself well to this kind of experiment.
With each performing group responsible for only an act, there was an added urgency to make each act count. But at the same time, there was a more relaxed feel. Without the pressures of an entire production to sustain, each team was free to have fun with their segment. The players frequently brought the audience into their performances, which created a community in the room and added to the sense of joy. It wasn’t clear to me that any of the teams knew what any of the other teams were doing, so the audience and the performers were sharing in the spontaneity of the theatrical moment together. And when a performer in the Act V group made a seemingly-impromptu callback to a gag introduced by the Act IV team, it brought the house down.
I know DeLisa directed Act II, but I don’t know the names of any of the performers, so I can’t give any shout-outs. The companies are listed on the website. But the acting and directing were fantastic across the board. Malvolio was somehow a standout in each of the five acts, which speaks well of the character Shakespeare wrote as well as the five actors cast in that role.
Kudos to the organizers of ShakesCon 2017! I’m looking forward to joining you again in 2018.