Shakespeare. Theater. Beer.

I often wonder, as I perform in ShakesBEERience, how similar this must have been to how it was in Shakespeare’s time. I think there is something very special about having an audience that goes on the journey with you.

—Gendell Hing-Hernandez

It could be just another night at Cafe Stritch on First Street. The bar is packed. All the tables are taken. Drinks are flowing.

Just another night except for…

An actress standing on the bar, delivering Lady Macbeth’s great soliloquies from the Shakespearean drama. Three actors spinning spells as the play’s witches. Macbeth himself shuddering at the sight of Banquo’s ghost on Stritch’s small stage.

Since October 2013, Shakespeare has come to Café Stritch four times a year, courtesy of a theater troupe known as ShakesBEERience. Taking over the club on Monday nights, the company performs versions of the Bard’s dramas and comedies, from The Tempest and Richard III to The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. From the beginning, the club has been packed for the shows, and ShakesBEERience regulars know to get to Stritch early to grab a seat.

The idea of ShakesBEERience was brought to San Jose by John McCluggage, a theater director and former associate artistic director of the San Jose Rep, and his wife Alexandra Urbanowski, a former managing director of the Rep who is now associate director of SV Creates. While living in New Hampshire, they became involved with Seven Stages Shakespeare, which performs the Bard in local pubs.

When McCluggage and Urbanowski came back to San Jose, they asked Seven Stages founders Dan Beaulieu and Christine Penny if they could take the concept with them. “They graciously (and eagerly) said, ‘Yes!’’ recalls McCluggage, noting that both Beaulieu and Penny have come to San Jose to perform with the group.

Of course, McCluggage had to find a company before he could stage a play. Drawing on his 20 years at the Rep, he pulled together a group of actors with credits that include the Rep, San Jose Stage, City Lights, Silicon Valley Shakespeare, Cal Shakes, TheatreWorks, and Comedy Sportz.

“Initially, I wanted to see who would be willing to commit and who would enjoy the improvisational, interactive nature of the format,” says McCluggage who, in addition to directing Julius Caesar, is also directing Other Desert Cities at City Lights this fall. “The process isn’t for everyone,” he says, “and I needed to see who took to the idea of not only the short rehearsal—seven hours over two days—but the ‘cold staging’ aspect.”

Maryssa Wanlass, who is now playing Hermione in The Winter’s Tale with the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, was asked to be in the first ShakesBEERience show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I thought it sounded fun. It was and I had a blast,” says Wanlass, who became part of the company’s core ensemble.

Others joined because of their love of the Bard. “There is a reason why his plays are still relevant today,” says Gendell Hing-Hernandez, another regular performer who is a drama teacher and is currently directing a show with the San Francisco Youth Theater. “This guy really hit a nerve in the experience of being human.” Hing-Hernandez was also attracted to the challenge he saw in ShakesBEERience. “Shakespeare is hard enough with plenty of rehearsal, let alone with little to no rehearsal and at a fully happening bar,” he says. “Being an actor, crazy is often on the menu, so I had to say yes.”

For many American theater-goers, Shakespeare is an experience where you sit quietly and try to grasp the meaning of language that is often foreign to the modern ear. “Unfortunately, the common perception of Shakespeare is that he’s stuffy and antiquated and impossible to understand,” says Doll Piccotto, another company member who is performing this summer in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Julius Caesar with Silicon Valley Shakespeare. “He’s equated with ‘high culture’ and [considered] something for upper-class, scholarly folks,” she adds. “The complete opposite is actually true. Shakespeare was a normal, average guy. His plays were performed for everyone.”

By transferring his works from a proscenium stage to an interactive environment, ShakesBEERience tries to make the language more accessible. “It’s very free form as the cast moves in and around the audience, and they need to adapt to fill the empty spaces—to create scenes throughout the space,” says McCluggage.

Although Stritch has a small stage, it’s only occasionally used. The balcony at the club has become the balcony in Romeo and Juliet and the deck of a ship in The Tempest. Cocktail straws sometimes fill in for swords. Members of the audience sometimes find their glass of beer or plate of French fries transforming into a prop.

“The challenge in ShakesBEERience is to bring Shakespeare’s moments to life in a very short amount of time, with very little to use,” says Piccotto. “You are forced to really concentrate on using Shakespeare’s most powerful weapon—his words.”

Wanlass points out that at a ShakesBEERience production, “there’s not much reverence for The Bard,” which is just fine. Even the drinking game that has become part of each show—everyone takes a swig when a certain word is said—just adds to the flavor of the evening. “I think we do more honor to his work by playing it full out, lustily, getting right to the heart of a scene so that the audience completely gets what is happening,” she suggests. “In Shakespeare’s theater, the cheapest tickets got you right in front of the stage, no seats, and it is reported that these so-called ‘groundling’ audience members would eat, drink, yell at the actors, and generally have a great time. At ShakesBEERience, we go to the groundlings! We hang out with them and do the play amongst them.”

Hing-Hernandez has much the same feeling. “I often wonder, as I perform in ShakesBEERience, how similar this must have been to how it was in Shakespeare’s time,” he notes. “I think there is something very special about having an audience that goes on the journey with you. Expressing themselves almost as much as the actors. When you hit a note just right, and the ensemble often does, the audience just goes nuts. They are encouraged to do so and boy do they ever. They will cheer, yell, hiss, laugh, boo, [express] awe, drink, or even flirt right back at ya, if the occasion is right. But most of all, it feels right with the work.”

The actors keep coming back to ShakesBEERience, not for the small fee they receive but for the experience and the way it stretches them as performers.

Hing-Hernandez says playing with “a consistent ensemble has allowed us to play on a deeper level. All I can say is these actors are making outrageously fun and brave choices. From my point of view, it is actually quite scary. I look around and often think, wow, these people are so good. They are bringing their A game, [and] I can’t afford to do anything but bring it as well.”

And Wanlass suggests, “There is a skill set beyond just being a classical actor that is needed to really make the most of a ShakesBEERience production. John McCluggage describes the style as ‘Shakespeare Jazz.’ You have to know your stuff, but you also have to be able to let it fly in the moment and respond to whatever is in front of you, be it an actor who made a new choice in the moment, or the discovery that no one is listening to the monologue you thought would be so brilliantly delivered from the balcony, or someone handing you a full shot glass.”

But, most of all, says Hing-Hernandez, “It feels alive. We, the actors, are alive and present. They, the audience, are alive and present. It is an experience not often encountered in actual theaters.”

Written by Charlie McCollum
Photography by Daniel Garcia and Tasi Alabastro

Full article originally appeared in Issue 8.3 Show


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