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Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Dominic Conti in "A Complete History of America (Abridged)."
Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Dominic Conti in "A Complete History of America (Abridged)."

The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Comic Condensation Formula

What began as a kicky Renaissance Faire attraction is now a global sensation encompassing everything from Shakespeare to, well, pretty much everything.

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2). Had he seen his complete works abridged by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, would he have added “…but this is ridiculous”?

Thirty-seven plays in 97 minutes, as the company bills its signature piece, may be quite a reduction, but the concept spawned a thriving theatre company that makes a virtue out of diminution.

Today, 30-some years and several personnel changes after its debut—with a high-spirited half-hour abridgment of one single Shakespearean play at a weekend outdoor event in Northern California—the company just brought its latest concoction to Mill Valley, just 15 miles from where it all started. The journey from the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato to the Marin Theatre Company has been remarkable by any standard.

Consider the numbers: The company mounted 10 tours during the 2013–14 season, featuring 18 different performers doing a total of 270 performances of 8 different shows in 101 venues in 5 countries. Impressive stats for what began as a “hippie troupe” doing weekend gigs while holding on to their day jobs.

How did it all start? In 1981, 21-year-old Daniel Singer was working as an actor at the original Faire, an outdoor weekend “happening” where, amidst booths, activities and strolling players, performers put on half-hour shows. He submitted a script for a 30-minute abridgment of Hamlet to be performed by a cast of four. He planned on playing Horatio, Polonius and Laertes himself and had Barbara Reinertson in mind for Ophelia and Gertrude. After open auditions, the show went on with Michael Fleming as Claudius and the Ghost and, in the title role, Jess Winfield.

During rehearsals, Singer’s approach evolved from an out-and-out melodrama to an over-the-top comedy. As leading man Winfield said later, “When Daniel first cast that four-person version of Hamlet, I think he kind of knew it was going to be a comedy—but I didn’t.” Winfield tried to find the melancholy prince’s motivation, but Singer told him, “Subtlety at the Renaissance Faire is sort of lost—you just have to be louder!”

The comedy became even more pronounced after the third weekend, when Reinertson broke her ankle and Singer replaced her with not another actress but an actor who had impressed him during rehearsals. Adam Long took on her roles in drag.

In 1982 the troupe got back together to do Hamlet at both the Northern California Faire where it had all begun, and at the Southern California Faire as well. Then, for the 1983 Faires (while Winfield was unavailable working on his degree at the University of California at Berkeley), Singer and Long developed a version of Romeo and Juliet as a two-hander. They took the show on the road to other faire-like events, comedy clubs and a few unlikely places throughout California. “One weekend, we went to Catalina Island and did Romeo and Juliet on the beach and then passed the hat,” Singer remembers, adding, “Another time a couple said, ‘Would you come do your Romeo and Juliet at our wedding?’ Which we thought was pretty crazy—but we did it.”

The pass-the-hat idea took a firm hold in 1986. The fledgling RSC abandoned its $35-or-$40-a-day salary structure and, Singer says, “upped our game to integrate all sorts of comedy stylings into the show that would get the audience really excited toward its climax, so they would just be whippin’ out the money at the end.” He adds that, after having been “just a hobby for a really long time, when we became a pass-the-hat act and started making some money to live on, we actually said, ‘You know? Let’s just do this theatre thing!”

 

Then, in the third week of the 1986 Faire, the wife of the actor playing Claudius and the Ghost went into labor, and he left the show to join her at the hospital. Adam Long suddenly had to play Claudius, the Ghost, Ophelia and Gertrude, taking the pandemonium of the performance to a new peak. Singer says, “That was the morning the three-person RSC was born.” The show became what it remained: a three-actor romp with Singer, Winfield and Long doing the Hamlet and just Singer and Long doing the Romeo and Juliet.

Jess Borgeson, Reed Martin and Adam Long.
Jess Borgeson, Reed Martin and Adam Long.

Someone suggested that they take an expanded version of their show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. After figuring out just what a fringe festival was, they set out to raise the $12,000 they figured they needed. Singer booked a venue in Edinburgh for an inauspicious 10:30 a.m. time slot.

Since Singer had made the booking under the title The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), they knew that they needed more than the two pieces in their hamper, so the trio set out to create a script to match the title. Long took the comedies, Winfield the tragedies and Singer the histories—they worked up two-minute versions of each. When they read through them, said Winfield, “They were boring as hell, but we’d already promised the complete works. So we made it more a show about three guys attempting to do the complete works, because that is what we were trying to do.”

The 1987 engagement in Edinburgh became something of a legend and established the troupe’s reputation on the other side of the Atlantic, but they remained comparatively unknown on their home shores. They toured in 1988, but big changes were afoot in 1989.

Singer began to feel burned out by all the touring and the stress of his logistical and managerial duties. In addition to the fame the RSC generated, he had a reputation as a scenic artist, which had been his day job in the early days of the troupe—and when he was offered a job with Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of the Disney company that designs and constructs their theme parks, he decided he wanted out.

Singer proposed that they split the company and the play, The Complete Works, into separate entities. The authors (Winfield, Long and himself) would retain the rights to the play in perpetuity, but the company would be owned by whomever the participating partners were at any given time. This resulted in a five-way partnership of himself, Winfield, Long, the touring stage manager Sa Winfield, and the new company manager who had joined them, Scott Ewing. Singer left to join Disney where, among other projects, he led the crew that created the buildings for Toontown and the concrete tunnels of the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland.

The search was on for a replacement cast member. Winfield suggested they invite Reed Martin to audition—they had done shows together at Berkeley before Martin had gone to the University of California at San Diego and then to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Martin, it turned out, was having his own burnout issues after doing 12 to 13 shows a week for two-and-a-half years as a clown with the circus. Winfield figured that Martin’s circus-clown experience and classical acting training might be a good mix with the troupe’s brand of comedy.

Both fame and touring miles began to mount. By 1991, the RSC had performed in Canada, Australia, Japan and Ireland, taken their first tour of the UK with a final stop in London, and made their New York debut. But the pace took its toll.

The next to burn out was Winfield. By 1992, he says, he had been touring “pretty incessantly for three years”—and he had become engaged to the tour’s stage manager and fellow founding partner, who, he says, “was even sicker of touring than I was.” They determined to return to Southern California, where Winfield became a writer and producer for the Walt Disney Company.

Again, the troupe turned to former Berkeley colleagues to fill a slot: This time it was Austin Tichenor, who had a background in children’s theatre, summer-stock Shakespeare and puppet shows.

Austin Tichenor and the company of "The Complete Works of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (abridged) Extravaganza" at the Reston Community Center in Reston, Va.
Austin Tichenor and the company of “The Complete Works of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (abridged) Extravaganza” at the Reston Community Center in Reston, Va.

The company’s reputation in the U.S. was finally building. Original member Adam Long teamed with Martin and Tichenor to write a new show with the American audience in mind. “Of course, our fame had up to this time been mostly in England, where William Shakespeare is so important, so looking for something that important in the U.S. led us to American history,” says Tichenor. The resulting The Complete History of America (abridged) was a hit at Montréal’s Just for Laughs Festival and at the Serious Fun Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center. The RSC took both The Complete Works and History of America to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and even performed at the White House for a 4th of July celebration.

Setting a pattern continued to this day, the authors of each new play assigned exclusive rights to the piece to the RSC for a few years so they could polish it and establish its value as a theatrical property. These included The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) (1995), The Complete Millennium Musical (abridged) (1998), All the Great Books (abridged) (2002), Completely Hollywood (abridged) (2005), The Complete World of Sports (abridged) (2010), The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) (2011) and The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) (2013). Now, each year licenses are granted for literally hundreds of amateur and school productions, along with dozens of professional mountings. The scripts have been produced in more than two dozen languages.

 

The range of topics subjected to the abridgment treatment in the company’s parodies is in part a reflection of Martin and Tichenor’s breadth of interests. Martin says, “We always try to pick a topic that both Austin and I have great passion about, because we’re going to be spending so many years researching, writing, rehearsing and performing each show.” NPR critic Bob Mondello appreciates “how well they understand their subjects—and how much they assume their audience knows.”

By the mid-1990s, there was enough demand on both sides of the Atlantic to justify establishing two units—Long chose to head up the UK unit while Martin and Tichenor kept the U.S. unit. The “hippie troupe” had evolved into a repertory theatre company and playwriting operation.

The name identification value of the company’s title is now enhanced by radio and television programs, a weekly podcast that Tichenor handles, a newsletter Martin writes and a significant presence on social media. Since they don’t have a theatre of their own, Tichenor says they have a “reduced office” in Sonoma with one full-time staffer, Alli Bostedt. Martin’s wife Jane is the part-time general manager; performance rights for the licensed plays are handled by Broadway Play Publishing in New York.

Long stopped performing in 2003 but keeps his abridgment skills honed—last December saw his Dickens Abridged at London’s Arts Theatre, the venue where RSC’s Complete Works ran for 11 months back in 1992.

Martin and Tichenor, on the other hand, continue to tour. Each appeared in nearly 100 performances in 2013–14, and they’ll be returning to home turf with The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley this month, along with fellow cast member Dominic Conti. Reduction has its ridiculous aspects, all right, but for one troupe with an inspired idea, it’s become a recipe for success.

Brad Hathaway retired from editing PotomacStages.com and now writes about theatre and other things from the houseboat he shares with his wife in Sausalito, Calif.

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