After 13 years as an all-male troupe and one of Chicago’s most acclaimed improv teams, the Improvised Shakespeare Company has announced that its next round of auditions later this fall will be open to all genders for the first time.
“We’ve been working toward this change in Chicago for a while now, and had been waiting until we had more specific details and casting nailed down before sharing,” reads a post last week on the group’s Facebook page. “That said, we appreciate the passionate messages we’ve received.”
Improvised Shakespeare Company is one of the most popular squadrons in town. The group members solicit a suggestion from the audience then weave a narrative around it. Rather than merely tossing in a “thee,” “thou,” or “forsooth” every so often and calling it a day, they draw on the themes of Shakespeare: war-torn families, epic romance, secrets upon secrets, etc.
They play five shows a week at the iO Theater in Lincoln Park while maintaining a healthy touring schedule. Famous alumni include Thomas Middleditch, the Emmy-nominated star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and John Thibodeaux, a writer for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” One notable fan, Royal Shakespeare Company alum Patrick Stewart, joins them onstage every so often.
Founder Blaine Swen originated the idea of an “Elizabethan boy band,” one that “displays healthy masculinity onstage — to see grown men playing together with joy instead of aggression,” he says. As time went on, preparation became tougher. Soon ensemble members were reading the entire Shakespeare collection as homework of sorts, followed by pre-rehearsal discussions; when they finished all the plays, Swen moved them on to Plato.
Swen says he’s been contemplating a few shake-ups for years, and had already planned on expanding the troupe beyond men. The pressure to admit women grew in August, when a petition was launched making that demand. That’s when Louis Hirsch, a 67-year-old improviser, began posting the same thing to Facebook every day: “Today is [date] and no women are allowed to audition for Improvised Shakespeare Co. Why?”
He tagged both Swen and iO owner Charna Halpern. “It struck me as something in this day and age to be wrong,” he said Friday.
The group’s prior policy sparked the formation of a second Shakespeare-themed improv group, the Shrews. In October 2017, Lindsay Gonzales responded to a post in a Facebook group about starting a company for improvisers disqualified from ISC. Gonzales, a performer and self-made Shakespeare scholar, found herself in charge.
“[We] figured an inclusive group for ‘everyone currently ineligible to audition for Improvised Shakespeare’ was the best remedy we plugged it that way for months: ‘Currently Ineligible’ ” she writes in an email. “It started a conversation, that led to a meeting, that lead to a live reading of ‘The Comedy of Errors’ in my living room.”
In another antithetical twist, the Shrews eschew auditions altogether and cast via a meritocracy: show up to rehearsal, work hard, and stage time is yours. They’ve mounted their first run, five weeks ending Oct. 24 in Judy’s Beat Lounge at Second City. Their previous show took place in the aforementioned living room, where they achieved standing-room-only status when every chair in the apartment was claimed.
“The main goal [of this run] is to get as many people out to see our shows as possible, especially all those who were too busy to participate but readily cheered us on knowing how important the project was to Chicago improv,” she writes. “And here we are a year later and we now have two inclusive Shakespearean improv troupes in Chicago. One golden eagle and one upstart crow.”