Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Interview with the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Austin Tichenor

It was a great night. I got off work early, got some great laughs from my son, and then I had free tickets to see the Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC). For someone who writes shortened, melodramatic Shakespeare for kids books, what could be better?! Oh wait, I know, to meet and interview one third of the RSC. I say one third because there are only three main players on stage. There is Matt Rippy, the youngest of the triplets, Reed Martin, one of the writers and managing partner, and Austin Tichenor, another writer, performer, managing partner, and leader of the RSC podcasts (funny! check them out!). I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with Austin after their show at the Cal Poly SLO campus.

With both of us breaking out our Apple gear to capture this great interview, my first question was launched: “You’ve been doing this for how many years?” Austin: “Well, in 1981 this started as a pass-the-hat act at Renaissance fairs working 20 minute slots. First there was Hamlet, and then came Romeo and Juliet to kind of mix it up a little bit.” What was really interesting to hear was that the RSC was posed with the opportunity to do the entire works of William Shakespeare. They asked themselves, “we’ve done two plays, there’s only 35 more, how tough can that be?” They decided to make it their “swan song,” as Austin puts it, and to perform it at the Edinburgh festival in 1987. At this point, the RSC blew up as they started getting bookings and interest from all over the globe. The original founders have stepped out since then, but the second coming of Reduced Shakespeare started to fall into place: 1989 Reed Martin joined as one of the founders, Daniel Singer, decided to leave. Austin joined in 1992 when Jess Winfield moved on, and Matt Rippy joined in 1996 as Adam Long’s wife decided that it was time to settle down and have a family. Matt also mentioned that he emails Adam’s wife every week to thank her for his opportunity! However, to get back to the original question: “You’ve been doing this for how many years?” The company: 29 years. Austin, well, July 1st will be Austin’s 18th year with the RSC. Woohoo!

18 years, wow. That’s a while to be doing the same shtick. I mean, they do keep it fresh with Google references, Twilight references, ‘LOL’ references, but this leads to my next question… “So you have been doing the same shows for 18 years, how does it not get old?” Austin:You know, making people laugh never gets old.” He could have ended it right there. I have always believed this but never said it. He nailed it in one sentence: “Making people laugh never gets old, that’s the thing,” and boy were people laughing. There is something to be said about always laughing, although there may or may not be studies on this somewhere in some science book from some fancy college. But I bet you people live longer who laugh a lot, it’s just fact that I made up and it has to be that way, dontcha’ think? Austin: “Making people laugh is a pretty good gig.” You betcha!

What also caught my interest was their willingness to make people laugh anywhere in the world. I mean these guys have played the White House, The Criterion Theatre in London (for 9 YEARS!), The San Diego Repertory Theatre, The Hong Kong Arts Festival, The Liverpool Comedy Festival, and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, to name a few (check out here for a bigger list). Living in a town half the size of the Rose Bowl, such as I do, this easily sparked my next question: “You just spent two weeks in Times Square, playing to sold out houses in New York at the New Victory Theatre, and two days later you are here, San Luis Obispo. What gives?” Austin: “Basically, a gigs a gig. You go where they book ya. Sadly, it has gotten more expensive to go places because travel costs so much. But you know, it’s a living. We’re lucky. We get to make people laugh, but we’re lucky to be making our livings in the theater.”

Traveling all this time easily led to, “You have a family?” Austin: “Yeah, my son is thirteen and a half and my daughter turns ten tomorrow! It’s definitely difficult having a family and doing all this traveling. My wife’s in the business and is a writer.” Keenly I picked out my next question: “Now, you’re a pretty good writer, too?” Austin: “Well, Reed and I have written all the shows but Shakespeare (abridged) (for a list of abridged masterpieces, check here). We are currently writing the RSC’s 7th show, The Complete World of Sports (abridged).

A few other questions came about along the way: “I noticed that you are an all male stage show, yet in one of your photos on your website, you have a girl, what gives?” Austin: “When we wrote ‘The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged)", we decided that the harmonies would really benefit from having a female voice, and we also thought it would be fun to change it up a little, casting-wise. The trouble was, we weren't sure where we could find an actress-comedienne who also had musical theatre chops. Then we realized - wait, I'm married to one. My wife Dee Ryan has her BFA in musical theatre, and spent five years in Chicago writing and performing shows at Second City. Having Dee in the show also finally gave the RSC a female sensibility. Unfortunately, it was Reed's.

“What are some of the craziest moments you have had on stage?” Austin: “I don't know about ‘craziest, but some of the most memorable moments were when a guy suddenly jumped onstage during the show in Houghton, Michigan and for a brief second we understood what John Lennon must have felt (he turned out to be harmless). And we caught a kid asleep in the second row in San Diego so we took a picture of him and tweeted it mid-performance.”

“Do you ever talk to or see Adam Long, or any of the founders?” Austin: Sure. We're in touch with Adam a lot about a variety of things. He's doing well, and of course he wrote AMERICA and BIBLE with me and Reed. We see Jess and Daniel every now and then as well. Search for any of their names on our website and you'll find great interviews with them, including this one with Jess about his new (not child-friendly) book NY NAME IS WILL.

“If you could give one piece of advice to educators trying to reach kids with Shakespeare, what would it be?” Austin: Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read, so get the kids to a good live performance. Or have them watch a good movie (I like the Leonardo DiCaprio ROMEO + JULIET and the Kevin Kline MIDSUMMER; also 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU). Or failing all that, have them 'speak the speech' - yes, it's archaic but it can begin to sound natural and kids are amazed when it starts to make sense even if you don't know exactly what each word means. It's akin to the joy of learning a new language. A good way to get them comfortable with the language is to get them to swear - our Michael Faulkner talks about how he teaches this in Podcast #8 WORDS WORDS WORDS - this podcast also features my kids swearing.” Swearing, I love it! Another great place to get some Shakespeare insults flowing with your kids is from this handy worksheet from

“And lastly, what’s on your ipod?” Austin: “Rippy was just going through my iPod looking for something embarrassing and he didn't find anything. Mostly I think because my collection is so broad and eclectic. I've got everything on there from Gilbert & Sullivan to Lady Gaga. (That said, the theme to the TV show "Enterprise" with Scott Bakula is mildly indefensible).

RSC has grown from their roots as a comedy group to a theater company with the help of Austin’s background and experience. Currently they have about 9 actors in their rotation traveling and doing their shtick all over the globe. At their peak, they had about 5 companies out at any one time.

The show was wonderful, and my gut hurt afterwards from laughing (at least I think that’s what it was). What really caught my attention was the audience participation where they guys pull an Ophelia from the audience to scream on stage. They don’t just have her go up there and scream, they get the ENTIRE audience involved. And there is nothing cooler than seeing the audience yelling 4 different chants ( 1) “maybe, maybe not” 2) get the to a nunnery! 3) Paint an inch thick!” 4)cut the crap, Hamlet, my biological clock is ticking, and if you liked it you should have put a ring on it!” It’s this Id, Ego, Super-ego thing….oh, I can’t explain, just go see the show) at Ophelia while she is on stage, really setting her up to, frankly, just be insane. After that she lets out this howl that is, well, impressive.

In a nutshell, the Reduced Shakespeare Company is phenomenal. I was lucky enough to go see them two days in a row, to their “adult” version the night before, and their “almost adult” version the next morning for the schools in town. I can tell you this, without their help and inspiration, I know of about 100+ 6th graders over the past 5 years that would still not be caring about Shakespeare. They make Shakespeare fun and easily accessible to anyone who has had a tough time digesting all the Bard has to offer. Isn’t that all of us? So, stop reading this, take your kids and GO SEE THEM! Your kids will think Shakespeare is a really cool cat, heck, he even wore an earring!