Independent Artist Spotlight: Shakespeare on Tap’s As You Like It in a Bar
Edit: This performance has passed.
“Party. Yeah, I think in one word that’s what it is. It’s not a play, it’s a party. Where people happen to be doing Shakespeare,” says Jonathan Schlieman, producer of As You It in a Bar, a clown-infested Shakespeare performance which can only be described as a party, and rightly so.
The show’s title suggests a lot, being a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It done in a bar setting, however the form and cast of the play make this performance unexpected and entirely new. Produced by Jonathan Shlieman and Haley Fluke, two experienced players in the theater world, this non-traditional performance of the play revises typical theater style with nothing but appreciation. “It’s worth mentioning, we’ve both worked for classical theater companies who do that, and have a lot of respect for it…” explains Shlieman. Together, Shlieman and Fluke lead the group Shakespeare on Tap, a collection of performers who put on productions of Shakespeare’s plays in bars, with the intention of returning to the heart of the Elizabethan style of performance. The group’s first performance took place in January of 2020, weeks before the pandemic, and their performance of As You Like It will mark the group’s return to live theater. “I think right now, coming out of a pandemic- fingers crossed!- a tragedy sounds like a real bummer. And God, wouldn’t it be nice to laugh for a bit,” says Schlieman about their decision to choose As You Like It out of all Shakespeare plays for their show. “This is one of Haley’s and my favorite Shakespeare plays, period, because the heroines are some of the best written female characters, I think. And we really love the story of the women friendships in it”.
What makes Shakespeare on Tap different from any classical theater company? “Hey, it’s a Shakespeare play but we’re only gonna rehearse it once and see how it goes,” explains Schlieman. He continues to explain that the inspiration to start Shakespeare on Tap came from seeing the Back Room Shakespeare Project, a Chicago-based theater company with the same style of performance. “I think the reason I glommed onto this style when I saw the Back Room Shakespeare project doing it was because it made the plays feel exciting to me… It’s really about like, anything could happen”. Performers rehearse the entire production only once, enforcing improv-like qualities into the play, “Yeah, it really is just a figure it out as you go kind of thing. The hope is that you’ve done all of the work on the character and understanding the play ahead of time, so that you’re free to really live in that moment with your fellow performers and just figure out how you’re gonna do this play together. And in that way it does become improv-like”. Along with only one rehearsal, the play also does not have a director. Rather, cast members are allowed to make character decisions for themselves, from costuming, to their bits. Schlieman explains the benefits of a director-less play, in giving creative power to the actors involved, “My experience as a performer in it is that it’s really empowering, because it’s not like you’re executing someone else’s vision, you have total authorship in a weird way, which I think is exciting. And then also it’s really cool to see it come together and to see what choices other people make…”. Shakespeare fits perfectly into this model, as Schlieman references author Emma Smith’s writing about the nature of Shakespeare. “I was just thinking, there’s this line Emma Smith has in one of her books about Shakespeare, the thing that makes Shakespeare last and work so well is this quality that she calls ‘gappiness’. Like, the plays are big enough that you could put pretty much anything in them, and the play will still work, and it will wildly change… and I think that’s an exciting thing about Shakespeare and I think this kind of opens that up a little bit, and maybe that makes it more exciting, and more accessible”.
One of the most fitting aspects of the show is the casting, as almost all of the actors have a background in clowning and improv. “The charm of this is that it’s really halfway between Shakespeare and clown,” says Schlieman, explaining that the format of the show lends itself perfectly to these backgrounds. The on-your-toes quick thinking used in improv and clowning is utilized by the actors, as they navigate the unexpected occurrences that come with rehearsing only once. “It engenders an entirely different level of listening and problem solving in the performers, I think, that is really exciting to watch”. While attending the Pig Iron School, Schlieman met the majority of his cast members and found that clowning and Shakespeare seem to work really well together. Above all the focus of the cast and crew is providing theater in a more accessible setting. “You are enough and your voice is absolutely the right voice to play any character. It’s not this high important thing where we need to sit in a dark theater fifty feet away, it’s for anyone and everyone who wants to have fun!”
Not only is there excitement to be found in watching the actors deal with the unexpected, but as the Elizabethan model follows, there are plenty of opportunities for audience participation throughout the show. From their own version of bearless bear-baiting to wrestling matches, audiences will safely be involved in the production, removing the gatekeeping aspect of classical theater that separates the audience from the actors. “…the play is between the performer and the audience, it’s not something that the performers are doing with one another that the audience just happens to be witnessing. If you’re seeing the play you’re very much a part of it”. The proximity of the action to the audience helps in this aspect, being the reason the play is done in a bar rather than on stage. Community comes fully into force in As You Like It in a Bar, allowing audiences from a variety of relationships with theater to participate in the fun, and hopefully introducing some new faces to the excitement of theater. “The thing that’s exciting about this is that it brings theater into spaces that are populated by non-theater audiences… that people who wouldn’t normally go to see theater see it and think ‘Oh, that’s cool, maybe I should check out more of this stuff. I just happened in here for a drink, or maybe this is where I normally come for a bite on Sunday night, I had this cool experience, I wonder what other Fringe or free Fringe shows we can go see, now that we’ve done this’. That would be super cool”.
Although As You Like It in a Bar sold out tickets for the 2021 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, it is certain that Shakespeare on Tap will continue spreading the love of Shakespeare across the city’s bars and restaurants. “As much as there’s a thrill for an audience of ‘are they gonna fuck it up?’ there’s also the thrill of ‘I wonder how it’s gonna go!’ for a performer, which keeps it exciting… I think it’s about keeping it as a thing that is being worked on as opposed to a thing that has been solved”. Find Shakespeare on Tap and keep posted about their upcoming events at their website, https://www.shakespeareontap.com/.
Article by Maria Dragone, Photojournalism Intern