Bootleg Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Different. Dangerous. Irreverent.
Hundreds of bodies stretch out along Broad Street’s sidewalk.
This still-standing Richmond smorgasbord, including post-modern noblemen, scribes, physicians, artists and clerks, could pass for just another long line at The November Theatre.
What sets this parade of people apart from any other crowd isn’t what they’re doing, but what they’re about to witness. The theatre’s doors swing open, and bodies filter through rows and seats. The overhead lights dim, buzzing voices still to a silence, and the spotlight falls on four Elizabethan soldiers… wearing only tighty whities?
Welcome to Hamlet — Bootleg Shakespeare style.
If Hamlet, this year’s fourth annual Bootleg Shakespeare production from Henley Street Theatre Company, proves anything like past year productions, fans may start lining up as early as 3 p.m. to secure a seat. What explains this consistently packed house premiere? Let’s start with defining this bootleg phenomenon.
“Like a bootleg recording, it’s a copy of a copy of a copy. It’s something handed down and passed around through the community,” explains Henley Street Artistic Director James Ricks, who also takes on the role of Hamlet this year. “[Bootleg Shakespeare] is a little rough around the edges, but essentially gives the same cool quality with an added illicitness.”
Actors will show up for their first and only run-through the morning of, for a 7:30 pm performance. As if an on-the-fly process isn’t risky enough, the actors receive their roles only 30 days prior to this one-day showing. Costumes and props, supplied by the actors themselves, aren’t even revealed until show time.
“We’re always using top-notch actors that play the scene honestly. There’s this sort of irreverent child-like aesthetic the actors bring, making it more playful than a ‘museum Shakespeare’ might be. That all compounded with the occasional train wreck, just makes for a pretty fun evening. And it’s free,” adds Ricks.
With the illicitness of the process, this might be an actor’s worst nightmare. Perhaps that’s what made it difficult to recruit performers for the initial show, Romeo and Juliet.
“The first year, it was me reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I want to do this project! Are you interested in this kind of thing?’ A lot of people said no,” says Ricks. “There is no pay involved. It’s a one night only event. Nobody knew what to expect.”
Ricks, a then-recent transplant to the Richmond theatre scene, gave the actors more time than usual for preparations in the inaugural production.
“I was so serious about it,” says Melissa Johnston-Price, an experienced vet on the bootleg stage, who was cast as a gender-reversal Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. “We were all very intense. So intense and intent, that everything basically went right.”
“I didn’t know the level of work here yet. Everyone was a little too prepared,” says Ricks. “Romeo was the first one to screw up, and that wasn’t even until act four.”
“It was just a minor little thing,” says Johnston-Price, who also plays Queen Gertrude this year. “He called for line, and you could hear the audience going ‘ahhhh!’ They ate it up. More things began to go wrong and the audience went crazy. They loved it.”
Remarkably, the actors recall the most derailing performances that came later, as the best.
“They turned out to be rock concerts, and we had to turn away people at the door. A lot of people,” says Ricks. “After that actors have been begging me if they can be in it, which is great. People are really curious about it and want to step outside their comfort zone, throwing themselves into the lion’s den.”
According to Johnston-Price, the process might be terrifying and at times, painful, but the outcome tends to be powerfully exciting- thanks to the magic of adrenaline.
“It’s scary, exhilarating, and heightens all of your ‘spidey senses’ as an actor,” says Johnston-Price. “It is such a challenge to go in, rehearse each scene only once that day, and then perform it for people. To remember your lines, where you’re supposed to be and who you’re acting with puts you on this challenging adrenaline rush, and it’s just really cool.”
The full house may be explained by the admission (free) or the potential for chaos (high), but it seems there’s also something in the “thespian air” on Bootleg nights that’s harder to define.
“It’s not like the audience goes in and thinks “this is so sloppy.” They’re savvy to the rules of the game. They’re excited for you and on your side. When something horrendous does happen on stage, they embrace it and cheer you on,” comments Ricks.
“[Bootleg] is about as good as it gets. When there’s a train wreck, you’re rewarded for it- which is unusual,” explains Johnston-Price.
These unintentional train wrecks reveal something more to Ricks about the interaction between the audience and actors.
“This is probably the closest to Elizabethan staging that you will get,” comments Ricks. ”Elizabethan actors didn’t have a lot of rehearsals. Sometimes they had only one, and they weren’t usually working together. Once on stage, the actors would communicate to the audience with a certain degree of pageantry involved. They were ‘strutting the boards’ a little more aggressively.”
Of course no one can really know what the inside of an Elizabethan theatre was truly like, but Ricks is certain a trip to a November Theatre provides a very similar idea. An idea which portrays that a city needs strong artistic and theatre communities to thrive.
“A city like Richmond, which I think has been kind of undergoing an identity crisis for the last 20 years or so, needs to rebrand itself as something other than a corporate headquarters or civil war capital. The city’s already developing the arts district downtown, which is really exciting, and all of these galleries are popping up. There’s a lot going on right now,” Ricks says.
“It feels transformative to me,” adds Johnston-Price. “Just look where Firehouse sits right now. All of a sudden all these other things have appeared around it. There are so many people living down there, it feels already like it’s happening. Richmond is revitalizing.”
In assisting with cultural revitalization and awareness, Henley Street actively decides to have a “donation only” admission for Bootleg Shakespeare.
“The actors aren’t working for anything. It’s an opportunity to let us do something fun in the city,” explains Ricks. “There’s so much theatre in town and times are hard- I think it’s nice to reward the community with something special. This once-a-year only event is something people can look forward to, and it doesn’t cost them anything. The show is a fund-raiser this year, so donations are always gladly received. Oh, there is also a cash bar.”
Aside from amazing talent, free admission, genuine entertainment, and a cash bar, the actors clue us in on a few other surprises about the evening.
“It’s the people that play the really small bit parts that you have to watch out for,” advises Ricks. ”They’ll come on for their moment and bring something they’ve been keeping a secret to themselves all day. Those are the roles that are hugely memorable, but also give the larger roles something to reckon with. They’ll come on and do something outrageous. Be ready.”
Ricks also revealed various artistic directors of local theatres will be making guest appearances throughout the performance.
“They are going to play the players. I wanted them to do it during the first one, but they were still like ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you talking about?’” laughs Ricks. ”Now they know I’m not just a ‘fly-by night op’. I’m excited about their bootleg debuts for sure.”
As if the sun has long past set on The November Theatre, and the final scene of Hamlet is concluded on stage, Ricks reveals the ”bootleg ambitions” for both audience and actor .
“Have fun. As much fun as possible,” says Ricks. “Ultimately, if I don’t allow myself to have fun, then I’m not going to be able to take the kind of risks the audience is looking for. We want to ‘rock out and melt faces’. We want something with a more robust, cultural offering. Richmond is literally undergoing a renaissance, and we are trying to assist in this revelation.”
Differently. Dangerously. Irreverently.
A recent NYC transplant, I'm a writer, dancer, foodie, clothing lover, and sriracha supporter. Having lived in RVA for seven years, I completely adore the River City, and still spend as many days as I can rock-laying on the James. A self proclaimed "vintage voyeur," I think the arts scene of any city can reveal so much... not only about our past, but also our modern day, and where we need to go from here.
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