April 24, 2008

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The Bard, condensed
Acting Loft brings the complete works to Manchester
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

It’s a reverse field trip.

Acting Loft has put together a cast of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), hoping to tour area schools.

“It’s just getting harder and harder for schools to do field trips,” director John Sefel said. Liability is an issue, as is fuel cost for buses. So the leaders of the Manchester educational theater company decided to bring the field trips to the schools.

A show at Salem High School on Friday, April 18, was one of about half a dozen performances the Acting Loft has booked. About 650 kids watched the 8 a.m. revue of the 400-plus-year-old plays.

“Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve been received exceptionally well,” Sefel said. The group has also performed at Manchester West High School and McClaughlin Middle School.

“But it’s not an easy climate right now,” he said. It’s hard for schools to free up even enough money to bring performances in. Sponsorship from New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation (NHHEAF) has helped Acting Loft subsidize the school performances.

“No eating, drinking or smoking, and for the love of god, no texting,” said actor Dylan Gamblin before opening the April 18 performance.

Originally staged by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the script is written for each cast to improvise and “make it their own,” Sefel said. Some customizations are developed in rehearsal. But what the actors do also depends on the location, how the audience is reacting, and “how much Red Bull the actors had before the show,” Sefel said.

Additionally, the actors censor the jokes to be age-appropriate. They offer a cleaner version for junior high, a not-too-dirty version for high schoolers. They also add in things high schoolers would recognize, like the “Soulja Boy Dance,” whatever that is, and, the “no texting” rule. A Charlton Heston reference went over the students’ heads, though.

When the group performed excerpts from Shakespeare straight, they excelled. They lingered on improvisations to which the students responded with gales of laughter.

“Two houses, both alike in dignity...” actually cast something of a spell, before Gamblin, Toby Paul and Steven “Dingo” Ihde jumped into their condensed version of Romeo and Juliet. That, of course, involved a guy wearing a wig and speaking in a high- pitched voice, singing, “I Feel Pretty.” Gamblin appeared as Romeo in a T-shirt that read “EMO,” and they got plenty of mileage out of a joke about “but love.” As in, “call me, but love...” So Juliet calls Romeo “Butt Love.”

They took a good amount of time with Romeo and Juliet, which left me wondering how they would get through all the 37 plays in about 90 minutes. But they did. They condense entire genres, with such techniques as comparing the history plays to sports, passing the “crown” back and forth in football plays.

Sefel said the actors are looking forward to doing a public performance for adults at the Acting Loft and tailoring their jokes to them. What will stay is the audience participation at the end. The audience is split into Ophelia’s id, ego and superego, and it gets a little more complicated from there. But the kids dug it.

See public performances of Shakespeare Abridged Friday, April 25, and Saturday, April 26, at 7:30 p.m., or Sunday, April 27, at 2 p.m. Ticket costs range from $5 to $10. Buy tickets at www.actingloft.org or at the door. Acting Loft is at 516 Pine St., Manchester.


Improv yourself
You, too, can learn improv.

“We’ve actually had people ask us about it for years,” said John Herman, artistic director of Stranger Than Fiction. This is the fourth year of the New Hampshire improv comedy troupe, although some members still work with ImprovBoston. STF frequently runs kids’ programs. They’ll launch their first attempt to bring serious improv training for adults to New Hampshire on April 26.

When people watch something like Whose Line is it Anyway? or the highly trained improviser Robin Williams, they often don’t realize what’s involved.

“You want the general public to believe [it’s] innate talent, but it’s something you can learn,” Herman said. Some improv programs take six years. A trained improv actor should be able to get on stage with another in a different city, and that actor will know what to expect. It’s like boxing in that way, Herman said — you learn certain techniques, but your execution of them will be unique.

An Epping High School teacher, Herman has a master’s degree in education, so he’s particularly excited to start this program from a teacher’s point of view. The rest of the Stranger Than Fiction cast is contributing ideas from their training, which includes time at The Groundlings in Los Angeles and Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. Herman also pulls from a class he ran at Tribe Theater in Boston.

Stranger Than Fiction hosts an annual summer retreat, where top improv actors teach a weekend workshop. Usually about 75 people attend, but they aren’t usually from New Hampshire. This eight-week course is targeted for the Granite State and culminates in performance. The leaders want to limit it to 12 people, and 10 have signed up. They are using a yoga studio in Portsmouth and only charging $125. The class is for ages 18 and older, although they also offer a teen course.

Stranger Than Fiction chose Portsmouth because that was where they heard the most demand, but members are also from Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Rochester, Dover and Newmarket — “so our cast is ready to spread this across New Hampshire,” Herman said. Other members will teach as guests with Herman.

“We want to bring the art to where we live,” Herman said. “We’re getting too old to drive to Boston four nights a week,” he said. If you want to try out Foundations of Improv, register at www.strangerthanfiction.us. It starts Sunday, April 27

If you want to check out ImprovBoston without going all the way to Boston, you can attend their MainStage show at the Revolving Museum in Lowell, Mass., Saturday, April 26. The show starts at 8 p.m., and audience members must be 17 or older. It’s free, but reserve space by e-mailing ebates@revolvingmuseum.org or calling (978) 937-2787.

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Wake up to ‘night Mother