courtesy Improv Guild

Finding the humour in Shakespeare’s tragedy

Improv Guild takes on challenge of performing improvised adaptation of Hamlet

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Hamlet will have a tough time keeping up his melancholy demeanour as a local Calgary improv group tackle one of the greatest plays ever written.

The Improv Guild is producing a semi-scripted version of Hamlet by combining the language and storytelling of Shakespeare with the off-the-cuff performance of improvisation. It will run May 23–25 at the Improv Depot.

“It’s a strange project unlike anything I’ve ever worked on,” says Rick Hilton, artistic director of the Improv Guild, who’s been doing improv for 35 years.

Hilton wanted to give the Improv Guild’s troupe a challenging project for their 10th year and see what they would do with it. Hamletwas the perfect fit because nothing about Shakespeare’s play lends itself well to improv, according to Hilton.

“It seems impossible,” Hilton says, “and that’s kind of the nature of improvisation, doing what seems to be impossible — creating things in the moment, directing yourself, getting things from the audience, trying to incorporate them.”

Hilton’s troupe will be looking to the audience to determine how the story will unfold or, more accurately, how the characters in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy will inevitably die. Hilton says they’ll be asking the audience for a method of death and incorporate that method of death wherever they can over the course of the play.

However, no amount of audience participation will save any of the characters from their fate. Hilton says they are still sticking to the narrative.

“I hate to spoil it,” says Hilton, who plays Polonius, “but Claudius dies at the end of this.”

“How remains to be seen but he will die — as will Gertrude, as will Polonius and as will Laertes. Ophelia dies as well, in fact.”

And the extent of the audience’s participation has yet to be determined — Hilton even joked about giving the audience things to throw at the stage. Hilton says it is a big exploration of the art form that they’ve embarked on and even they don’t know how it will play out. He doesn’t think any two performances will be the same.

“That’s the excitement of improvisation: we really don’t know,” Hilton says.

Because improvising a classic play isn’t hard enough, Hilton is making sure that the improv actors are sticking to traditional iambic pentameter. There will be lines adapted from the original play to help ease actors into the pace and meter of Shakespeare’s language.

“The language of Shakespeare is amazing and challenging,” Hilton says, “so it adds to the depth of artistic enjoyment as well as making the improvisers stretch their own vocabulary and their ability to deal with it.”

In order to weave together the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with the troupe’s improvisation, Hilton and the Improv Guild have been developing a process of serializing small chunks of the narrative. The scripted sections structure the performance and keep it on track and on time.

The Improv Guild’s adaptation may be the first of many. Hilton is hoping to use this process of hybridizing improvisation and literary narrative to adapt more plays with the Improv Guild in the future. Still looking for challenges, Hilton is aiming for large, impossible-to-stage narratives, with possibilities ranging from Greek tragedy to twentieth-century epic movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Ten Commandments.