Are You ShakesBEERienced?

Maryssa Wanlass (center) is cast as Queen Elizabeth in the upcoming Richard III at San Jose's ShakesBEERience.

Okay, be honest. When you hear “Shakespeare,” what is the first thought that comes to mind? Unintelligible? Ancient? Inaccessible? Irrelevant? A little bit boring?

If so, you probably haven’t heard about ShakesBEERience.

Originally created and developed by 7 Stages Shakespeare Company in Porstmouth, New Hampshire, ShakesBEERience focuses on making Shakespeare relevant, innovative and accessible, while at the same time activating businesses on their off-nights.

And one more thing: making Shakespeare fun… by adding alcohol.

Now enter Alexandra Urbanowski and her husband John McCluggage, founders of Buck Hill Productions. Alexandra and John live in New Hampshire, but have deep ties to Silicon Valley and its theater community.

In the Fall of 2013, McCluggage and Urbanowski decided to bring ShakesBEERience to San Jose for a one-time trial. As Urbanowski tells me, “We wanted to share the artists we love with a community we love.”

As it turns out, San Jose loved it too. And downtown arts gem Café Stritch turned out to be the ideal host. The show, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was packed – standing room only.

As is the model for many successful ventures in Silicon Valley, you prototype, gauge the demand and scale appropriately. And in addition to Midsummer Night’s Dream, standing-room only crowds experienced quarterly shows that included crowd favorites such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.

McCluggage and Urbanowski definitely saw the demand, and decided to launch a full season at Café Stritch. And they made sure to focus on what makes this “ShakesBEERience” unique and successful in San Jose and Silicon Valley:

1. Keep it Informal – Just hosting it at a bar is informal enough. But making sure there’s no dress code, that people sit wherever they want, that they can come late and leave early and that they don’t even have to pay attention if they don’t want to makes it comfortable.

2. Do not Charge – ShakesBEERience is free. Free = accessible. It’s a very simple formula.

3. Make it Participatory – How do you make Shakespeare participatory? You start by having actors interact with the audience. They sit at the tables, they talk to the audience, sometimes they even take a swig of their beer. Speaking of beer, audience members get to enjoy Shakespeare drinking games. Just to give you an example:
a. Midsummer Night’s Dream – Drink when you hear the word ‘sleep’
b. Romeo and Juliet – Drink when you hear the word ‘Romeo’
c. Macbeth – Drink when someone dies

4. Make Shakespeare Palatable – John and Alexandra made sure every script has been edited down significantly to keep them nice and short. For the most part, every show is 90 minutes or less.

“We also resisted having synopses and program,” Urbanowski says. “This is a stumble-upon urban experience. Like a poetry slam.”

For Cafe Stritch, they get to open their doors on a Monday night, an evening that’s typically dark for them. “Our business has been excellent every time we’ve hosted ShakesBEERience at Cafe Stritch, and it gets better every time,” co-owner Steve Borkenhagen tells me. “It also brings a new audience to Cafe Stritch.”

So, if you’re anywhere near downtown San Jose on April 20 around 6:30pm, the next ShakesBEERience performance is of Richard III. Make sure to get there early to get a good seat, or join their new membership club, which gets you special reserved seats.

Either way, be prepared to drink. They’ll be toasting a frosty glass every time somebody dies. Here’s a little spoiler… lots of people die.

Are You ShakesBEERienced? 18 April,2015KQED Arts

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