Drink It Up: A Short Interview with Drunk Shakespeare 's Josh Hyman

Drunk Shakespeare is something you really have to experience for yourself. Describing it in a few words -- one member of a troupe of five actors is required to drink before and during a performance of a Shakespearean play -- doesn't do the production justice. The Shakespeare and the drinking are only some of the components of what make for such a great evening. It's the comedy, improvisation, and complete aura of mischief that fills the seats (and glasses) each night.

Along similar lines, Josh Hyman serves as much more than host for the proceedings. He responded to my questions via email:

So where did this awesome, imaginative idea come from? And why Shakespeare, and why drunk?

Hyman: Why Shakespeare? Why drinking? Why not! First of all, in Billy's time, Shakespeare's works were regularly attended by the drunken masses. It was commonplace to see a play and have the pit be inebriated. If they didn't like what was going on, they were going to let the actors know it! But with Shakespeare, it was always good. So we grabbed a mug off of that bar shelf and took a swig at presenting Shakespeare's works as they'd always meant to be seen...with everybody drinking!

We wanted to meet the audience halfway and I think we accomplished that, from Fireball to Tequila, wine, champagne, PBRs, whole milk, Redbull and a bottomless glass of sonnets. Now we only have one actor drink per night (or we'd need nap breaks), but the audience can imbibe away as they please. We encourage it.

Where did the idea come from? My butt. No really, this came from a few places actually. One is my butt. Another is from our producer Scott Griffin who had seen a similar show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few years back and wanted to try his own take on the proceedings. As Shakespeare and drinking have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, he went with his impulse, changed many of the details and brought his version to the states.

First he enlisted the help of (Co-producer and Director) David Hudson from Three Day Hangover, who's company mission is to do Shakespeare adaptations in bars. David started by adapting one of Shakespeare's most well-known and epic tragedies (Macbeth) into the major story points before infusing pop-culture references, songs, dance, puppets, sex toys, shots, beers, bullhorns, feats of strength, partial nudity, ukeleles, and other innumerable outrageous moments.

Then Scott and David brought on some talented fucking Shakespearean super-star actors (one with phenomenal abs; not me) and seasoned improv and standup comedians, and together we created The Drunk Shakespeare Society. It's important to say, too, we're not just there for the shenanigans. We work extremely hard on bringing the drama to life. That's part of why the show is so funny, so memorable. Our irreverence takes those serious moments and flips them on their faces.

There's an incredible amount of audience participation in the show, no soul left unturned, as far as I could tell. Why's that so important to the development of the show?

Hyman: Well for a few reasons. It's important to me because my wife never lets me act like that in public. So if this crew is going to let me loose, I'm going for it. As a whole, it's because too much theater today is hidden behind the 4th wall. Well, that's what theater is usually about, I guess. But we wanted to take our presentation further; and from what we learned, we were correct in 'going there.'

People want to be involved. They crave it. Sometimes they don't even know they crave it. They'll walk in confused like, "Where's the stage?" but as soon as we start interacting with them, asking questions about where they're from or their favorite Shakespeare plays, but then licking faces, delving into their personal business, and laughing with them, they get the joke and jump in with two feet.

One time a retired, 50+ year-old Marine came to the show and two steps into the space he said to me, "Don't fucking touch me tonight." I was like, "Ooookkkk...!" By the end of the show, he had taken off his own shirt and was sitting on the throne with the drunk actor. It was an awesome moment of watching someone let go and just enjoy themselves. So is audience participation important? Absolutely. It's what makes the Drunk Shakespeare Society experience unique.

You serve as host for the evening as well as a cast member. How does that provide you with different perspectives with which to approach the material, and the audience?

Hyman: It totally provides different perspectives of approach, and quite frankly, I love it. Flipping between the Host and one of the play's characters allows me to do the two things I do best. As a Host (and MC of many standup comedy shows over my career), my job is to get people comfortable and ready to laugh. I get to approach the audience, literally, with raw interaction. I think quick and talk quicker. I get to have real conversations with people over very short amounts of times, sometimes even just seconds. It allows me to gauge each person, how involved they want to be or not, and how out of control they might be too (also important! lol).

I try to learn everyone's names, too, in about 15 minutes before the show starts, so that's a lot of fun to call people out mid-show by name and then see their shocked faces like I just cyber-stalked them. But then when we transition to the Shakespeare play, I get to engage my acting skills. And then the King rings the drunk actor check-in bell, and boom, I'm back to Hosting. I love the constant flipping back and forth. I think all the actors do. It's part of the fun, and the truth when we say, "It's never the same show twice." Because it's never the same audience twice. So the whole Society has to use all their skills, all of the time.

Some are better with certain things, like one of our actors Whit can literally recite a monologue from almost every one of Shakespeare's plays...on command! Another actor Michael plays guitar and piano. Another does monologues in Vietnamese while yet another does them in German. We have impersonators, accent imitators, women playing male parts (and vice versa), exposed tushies, an actor who does the best rendition of Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be" speech I've ever seen while also doing the worst Al Pacino Godfather impersonation I've ever seen, and then I'm the chubby guy giving lap dances! All of our skills come into play for us, so being the Host or not, we are all integrating these abilities into our performances.

Do you keep tabs on and track of the drunk cast member as he or she goes throughout the night? What happens when that cast member simply can't perform their required role?

Hyman: Everyone pretty much knows their limits. We eat before the show, and for double shows (same drunk actor drinks on Friday and Saturday nights), they eat in between shows. Of course, we are all watching out for each other. One time our female lead was the drunk actor for the night. At one point she climbed up on the bookshelves and I swear I thought she was going to jump down! So both as part of the show and as a precaution to her life (and the audience beneath her) I went onto the stage and acted as a basket. Later we both realized she was never going to leap, but again as a precaution I was there anyway.

Look, we're not trying to injure ourselves...but we are trying to push the limits of theater and entertainment. If anyone was ever truly in danger, we'd know and we'd adjust or maybe prevent them from drinking more. But after 400+ shows, it's never happened even one time. We've never had a problem. We're pros, bros!

What's the best part of the production that the audience can't see on the stage and doesn't know about? I could tell there was a lot of scheming and conversation happening in the periphery before, during, and after the show.

Hyman: Best part the audience doesn't see? Definitely the backstage live-sex chatrooms. Also how we always make our stage manager dress us after shows, even if we're not the drunk actor.

Just kidding. But my sarcasm is what you're alluding to. We just have fun. We communicate a lot, and we push ourselves to do smart (and sometimes terribly raunchy) improvisations. We want the audience to feel like they're seeing something that only THEY are uniquely seeing, even if it's Macbeth and we've done that play 100 times. And I think we are nailing it, because we trust each other and have fun.

Is there scheming? Sure. We chit-chat about who's a good person in the crowd to toy with, or maybe just have a laugh at a bit that just worked (or didn't). Sometimes we have to call out to each other who the people are that are already too drunk. We've learned to not over-engage them. They can be fun at first, but they forget where the line is too and sometimes we have to reel them in, like a sauced-up marlin thinking their playing Juliet when we're not even doing that play!

One time, our main character 'died' at the end of the play and the drunken Queen came off the thrown to give him REAL CPR. I mean, I know he enjoyed that moment and it was absolutely hysterical, but after a minute we weren't sure if she thought he was really dead or not. The point is, we have to communicate but moreso we have to all be on the same page so that we can bring the best performance possible. It's all about teamwork.

The best defense is a good offense, and the best offense is taking your pants off when it's least expected. I'd say that's a pretty good gameplan, and one that certainly works for us everyday, yesterday, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.