Peter Dixon

Interview: Reduced Shakespeare Company

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The Reduced Shakespeare Company are a touring American comedy troupe who perform fast-paced, seemingly-improvisational condensations of huge topics. Their previous shows include The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Complete History of America (abridged) and The Complete History of Comedy (abridged). Radio Teesdale‘s Peter Dixon speaks to one third of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Gary Fannin, about the group’s inception, their recent brush with censorship in Belfast, the company’s plans for the 2014 Fringe and more.

PD: Hi Gary. I’ve got the poster of the show here and there’s three very handsome chaps on it; a shepherd, a king and an aviator.  Which one are you?

GF: I’m sort of all three of them.  We basically take turns playing all these different characters.  Anybody who’s seen the Reduced Shakespeare Company will know that it is a rollercoaster of a ride.  We’re constantly throwing on different hats and costumes and it’s madcap.  So I think at any point you will see me in all three of those costumes.

PD: Of course, you started out taking the works of Shakespeare and abridging that, and it gave the company the name.  So I guess at one time it was probably thought to be the only thing you were going to actually do…

GF: And for many years it was.  It started in the early 80s as a “pass the hat” act at these things called Ren Fairs, Renaissance Fairs, in the States where we Americans like to dress up in Ye Olde English clothes and go into the woods and drink mead and listen to sort of folky-music.  It was there that we started doing the Shakespeare show, which in its original form was just a 20-minute version of Hamlet.

And that’s been our philosophy. Ever since we take great big topics and we cut them down into bite-size manageable, short, sharp comedies.  We basically cut out all the boring bits and get straight to the sex and violence.  And, let’s face it, Shakespeare has lots of that, and so does the Bible.

All through the 80s we were doing that and eventually came over to the Edinburgh Festival at which point we expanded the Shakespeare show to include the Complete Works of Shakespeare.  And after that we started writing all our other shows.

We had History of America, The Bible.  We’ve gone on to do things like All the Great Books, Hollywood as well as All the Great Sports.  And we’ve just premiered in the States our Complete History of Comedy, which is our newest show.

It looks right now that the Comedy show is going to the Edinburgh Festival and we’re probably going to take the Shakespeare show there at the same time.  And so the plan is that, depending on how Edinburgh goes, that the Comedy show will probably tour in the UK.

PD: How did you become involved in the RSC?

GF: Initially it was with a touring production and subsequently I went into the West End with the Shakespeare show.  I was there until the show closed eventually in 2005.  And that was a great time.

It was the longest running comedy in the West End and we had great audiences. We did the Shakespeare Show, mostly, and then one day a week we did The History of America and also one day we did The Bible show.

PD: The UK has been a kind of a second home for you guys hasn’t it?

GF: Absolutely.  I think the people of the UK really get our sense of humour and maybe it’s that we get their sense of humour as well.

We have a lot of success in the States but there’s something nice about a British audience, looking at three seemingly not very bright Americans tackling these huge subjects.  And also with the Shakespeare show coming over to England and showing you guys how to do Shakespeare. And I think Brits love laughing at Americans.

So yeah, there’s a nice sort of special relationship that we have here in the UK with the audiences here and we love it.  Audiences right across the country are fantastic, but particularly up north.  We love the audiences up north.  In fact we were in Durham last year with the Shakespeare show and we nearly had a riot. The audiences were fantastic.  So we always look forward to coming up.

PD: The initials of your company are RSC. Have you ever had somebody come into the audience thinking you were the actual Royal Shakespeare Company?

GF: I’m not sure.  I’m sure there’s some folks that have been dragged along by a wife or an old friend and they look really grumpy at the beginning.  And one of the great things, as a performer, is seeing those people at the end of the show and they just love it.  They’ve completely changed and they’re laughing and they’re on the edge of their seats and having a great time.

We take the seemingly boring topics that are held on a pedestal, things like Shakespeare or even the Bible.  And we give it its respect but we also like to take it off its pedestal and roll around in the mud with it and have a great time with it.

With The Bible show in particular most people in the west here have had some exposure to it.  We recognise a lot of the stories. If you say Noah’s Ark, people know the gist of that.  And so our show is full of all those stories that you know, but also the ones that you might not know.  So the people who know the Bible really well, there’s lots of stuff in there for them and likewise, people who don’t know anything, you’ll have a great time coming to see the show.

PD: Your show has caused some controversy on this tour.

GF: When we started this tour we opened in Northern Ireland and we nearly didn’t open because the Democratic Unionist Party there started raising a fuss saying that we were blasphemous.  And nothing could be further from the truth.

We celebrate the Bible, we’re celebrating the stories. We are in no way putting it down or saying that it’s bad in any way.  Basically, I think, the people who are raising the fuss, they saw the title and made a judgement and I’m sure there’s something in the bible about not judging, but let’s not go there.

They assumed that we were making fun of the Bible or saying it was bad in some way.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We’ve had clergymen and even nuns coming to see the show and loving and it and saying they would even recommend it for their congregations.

One vicar even said he thought it would be great for his Sunday School kids to come and see it because it actually gets them involved in the stories and makes them want to know more about it.  So, yeah, we feel like we’re doing our public service here.

PD: You’ve done several dates since that opening night – how’s it going?  What sort of reaction have you been getting this time round?

GF: Really, really, really good.  We’re constantly surprised. We play so many different types of venues across this country, from big, huge proper theatres to smaller community-based ones.  And even if we feel the audience is maybe a little bit quiet, maybe they’re not laughing as much; afterwards the feedback that we get from them is always amazing.

It’s hard to judge an audience by what they’re giving you during the show.  But, yeah, we’ve had a great reception. We’ve had religious people, very strongly religious people, loving it and wanting to recommend it.

PD: There’s a bit of audience interaction as well isn’t there?

GF: We aren’t your typical show where we pretend the audience isn’t there or we pretend there’s a fourth wall.  We come out and we talk to you guys directly and the audience is very much the fourth cast member on stage with us. So, yeah, we like to get the audience involved where we can.

And likewise that means that the show is slightly different every night as well depending on what the audience throws out at us.  So, the show has a lot of roots in improvised theatre and street theatre, although it is scripted, it has that feel like we’re sort of making it up on the spot.  And that’s one of the joys of doing these shows, is getting to play with an audience every night and having it be slightly different.

You can see Gary Fannin and the rest of the Reduced Shakespeare Company in The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) at the Witham Hall, Barnard Castle, on Saturday 15 March.  The show starts at 7.30pm. Tickets are priced £14 (£12 for concessions), and are available to purchase from