“We do a great disservice to people by making them read Shakespeare,” posits Tim Giles.
It’s a bold and scrappy declaration, to say the least, but that’s the ethos embraced by Spartanburg-based theater ensemble Scrappy Shakespeare, which brings its irreverent, iconoclastic interpretation of the Bard’s Much Ado About Nothing to Columbia on Sunday.
Shakespeare’s body of work “was never meant to be read, it was meant to be heard,” continues Giles, one of the nomadic troupe’s six original founders.
“Shakespeare was writing for a venue in which the hearing was done in an environment very different from our modern theaters,” he says, explaining why the group was inspired to replicate that ambience via modern dress on a virtually bare stage, with the surrounding audience clearly visible.
“Shakespeare wrote for a crowd, and he wrote to entertain.”
Scrappy Shakespeare sprang from a collaboration between the Spartanburg Little Theatre and the Chapman Cultural Center’s HUB-BUB residency program, in which visiting theater professionals — Lauren Ferebee in 2014 and then Anna Abhau Elliott in 2015 — attracted and developed a core framework of young dramatic artists.
“We decided that we didn’t want to stop working together,” Giles recalls, “and so the three of us, along with Liam MacDougall, Chandler Crawford and Sarah Hurley founded Scrappy Shakespeare.”
Later joined by Connor Vetter, Maddie Tisdel and Alastair Mann, their goal was to create “theater that was exciting, accessible and unpretentious.” The group shares creative and administrative responsibilities, avoiding titles.
“We worked without a director the first year, experimenting with what it was like to work in a non-hierarchical collaborative manner — another practice that, though it continues to shift, we try to maintain,” Giles explains. “I have served as the director of our productions since 2016, but only to guide a process that remains democratic and collaborative. “
Giles says that this egalitarian design “facilitates the creativity of our artists and allows us access to more ideas and options than could ever come from one director’s brain.”
He adds that theater is by definition a collaborative effort, and usually created on a tight budget, so the model followed focuses “on storytelling that relies heavily on the actors as opposed to high-budget technical wizardry.” As a result, the majority of the limited budget goes to pay the professional artists for their work. A combination of corporate sponsorships, crowdfunding (there’s a Kickstarter campaign), support from Spartanburg’s Chapman Cultural Center and from hosting venues, and donations made at performances makes it all possible. Scrappy Shakespeare has staged productions outdoors at college campuses, municipal pavilions and amphitheaters, and in non-traditional spaces such as bars, breweries and restaurants, as it will this week at Columbia’s War Mouth.
The plot of Much Ado concerns the bantering relationship between tart-tongued adversaries Beatrice and Benedick, whose denial of any underlying attraction compels their friends to set them up. A subplot involves malicious lies about infidelity among their social circle.
Giles notes that this simplicity “is great for our style. There are no women dressed as boys, no magic, no love triangles, no fights, and the one case of mistaken identity creates more tragedy than comedy. But all of these characters are constantly performing for one another, which brings out a new kind of theatricality.”
“There is very little in the overall action that is subtle,” he adds. “It’s the kind of play that invites the performers to say to the audience, ‘Yes, we all know this isn’t real. You know it, I know it, and we’ll have a lot more fun if we accept that and make the most of it.’”
Original songs by company member Lauren Ferebee are featured, with all actors singing and/or playing instruments. Actors are assigned roles at each performance, with company members learning multiple parts in advance, which Giles describes as “the most complicated aspect of this year’s show. We’ve devised several ways to choose who is playing what.”
These can include a raffle, polls on social media, or simple games of chance — such as audience members representing actors playing rock-paper-scissors.
The production is presented in partnership with Trustus Theatre, which facilitated the connection with The War Mouth, and is providing marketing assistance.
“The imaginative way they perform the Bard’s work is in line with our mission, so it’s a no-brainer,” offers Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson. “We’re hoping to deepen our relationship with Scrappy Shakespeare over the next year, and perhaps find new ways to partner with them in summer 2020.”
What: Scrappy Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
Where: The War Mouth, 1209 Franklin St.
When: Sunday, June 9, 7:30-9 p.m.