How to enjoy Shakespeare responsibly (Including managing a rowdy crowd and knowing when to stop)

“Has anyone ever been sick on stage?”

“What do you do if they pass out before the show?”

“I heard someone died .”

When you tell people you’re a member of the Shitfaced Shakespeare company, you can be sure that the conversation is going to veer away from inane small talk fairly quickly. I’m sure it comes as no shock that the first thing people usually want to know about a company whose bread and butter is shoving an inebriated actor onto a stage in front of hundreds of people is not often “So what’s your artistic mission?”

They want the good stuff. They want to hear about when the show has gone terribly wrong; when the carefully balanced element of peril has tipped the scale and some drunk performer has pulled the lighting rig down. “Show me the money!” they silently scream.

But the fact is that the balance is the key to a successful show. Audiences pay their dollar to see someone forget their lines, stumble about, and maybe lick several other people, but not to see people get hurt. This whole wonderful circus is subject to an almost infallible safety mechanism born out of years of trial and (sometimes messy) error, the two most important elements of which are managing the drunk, and managing the audience.

Managing our audiences, who are an interesting Venn diagram of people who like Shakespeare and people who like watching pissed people make tits of themselves, is largely straightforward. We invite them to the party by frequently demolishing the fourth wall and giving them the chance to top up the actor’s boozing at their own whim, but they’re kept firmly in hand by an omniscient compere who gets everyone in the spirit while taking absolutely no shit. The compere often acts as a barrier between rowdy audience members and the drunk, deflecting heckles with far more lightness of touch than a blundering drunken actor would. When the chants of “down it, down it” threaten to pressure the drunk actor into ill-advised gulping, the compere is there to remind the audience primly that a classical Shakespearean production is no place for such uncivilised oafishness.

Managing the drunk, on the other hand, is the responsibility of the entire cast. Making sure that they don’t throw up on the front row or start crying about their recent breakup while onstage begins four hours before the show. During these four hours the drunk is kept in a happy bubble of constant supervision, gentle drinking, and sometimes Whitney Houston, and carefully manoeuvred into the perfect mood and level of drunkenness to do a great show. Directly after the show is Water Hour.

Water Hour ends whenever the drunk is sober and happy, and lasts, well, as long as it lasts.

There is also little that anyone can do to stop the drunk revealing something if their heart is really set on

While the show is on the drunk is hawkishly tailed by the compere wherever they may wander, in case they try to climb the set, set off the smoke machines, or bring power tools onstage that they’ve found in the wings (some or all of these may or may not have actually happened). Although we can’t always control what a drunk person might reveal or confess while onstage, the job of the other actors is to limit these revelations to a moderate “oh God I didn’t tell them that did I”, rather than a catastrophic “my parents have disowned me and I’m being arrested”.

I may be throwing Shitfaced Shakespeare’s rock ’n’ roll credentials out of a hotel window here, but the truth is that generating this amount of nonsense and chaos is hard work, needs very careful handling, and comes with an enormous rulebook of Biblical proportions (literally, there is a physical rulebook and it’s about as long as the Bible). However, there is still plenty that we deliberately have little control over, which generates just enough spontaneous absurdity to make a really good show.

For example, unlike many other theatre companies we do not rehearse drunk, and so when we cast new actors we don’t know what kind of person they’ll morph into until they’re onstage in front of a paying audience. There’s literally no other way to know, as getting someone pissed in a pub produces a very different drunk to one who has been given the undivided attention of three hundred people. There is also little that anyone can do to stop the drunk revealing something if their heart is really set on it, be it their own PIN number, their crush on George Osborne, or the sexual history of their cast mates. And likewise if they really want to climb over the seats all the way to the back of the auditorium and the compere is too slow to catch them, that’s probably going to happen too. While safety is paramount, watching a drunk actor should be like watching children or animals onstage; utterly unselfconscious and fascinating in their unpredictability.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the answers to the questions at the top are:

  • No one has been sick onstage, but someone was once sick offstage into the compere’s hat

  • We put them to bed in the dressing room and get our smallest cast member pissed up in the ten minutes before we go on

  • That’s an untrue rumour that started after our actor was taken to hospital after our first ever show but you should have seen the size of the crowd we got the next night.

Magnificant Bastard’s Shit-faced Shakespeare: A Midsummers Night Dream is on at theLeicester Square Theatre from 9th July.

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