Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Reduced Shakespeare Company"

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Let's be clear: this is not a podcast meant to spoon-feed The Bard's words in puréed, sugar coated globules to shiftless, slack-jawed, grafted-to-their-white-earphones members of Generation Y. It's not the audio book of the Sparknotes to the Cliffs Notes. It's not even strictly about Shakespeare. "But surely," you stammer, flummoxed, "the very title... ?" Permit me an explanation.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is a bunch of guys — and sometimes gals — who have been around, in one form or another, for upwards of 25 years, all the while re-interpreting — dare I say "remixing" — Mankind's Important WorksTM live on stage all around the world, even in the countries that don't speak Middle English. They take their name from their bread-and-butter flagship show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), but they also do Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (abridged), The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), The Complete History of America (abridged) — godless Euro-Max-Funsters, you are now free to snark about how the previous two can't be that different — All the Great Books (abridged) and Completely Hollywood (abridged).

To do all those shows, you'd have to be both well-cultured and quick of foot and brain. Fortunately for them and for us, the players of the RSC all pack foot, brain and culture with no room in their luggage to spare. I think the costumes are shipped separately, but I don't know because they haven't put out a podcast about that yet. They have, however, released 78 episodes so far [iTunes link], many of which get into the nuts and bolts of what it's like to be a Reduced Shakespearean: how to play to a tiny crowd riddled with decrepitude [MP3], how to improv your way through flubs [MP3] and how to react to laughs that don't come [MP3]. If you're keen on joining the troupe, they even tell you how to audition [MP3]. (Don't get your hopes up.)

But it's not all stage geekery; there's also plenty of specifically Shakespeare geekery: note the humor-leavened discussion of the "authorship question" [MP3] that has dogged Shakespeare's plays for so long and has caused so much ivory-tower hand-wringing, or the one about the difficulties of teaching Shakespeare to middle- and high-schoolers [MP3]. (Solution: let the kids use modern-day swearing.)

And let's not forget the internet geekery. Unlike so many staid theater groups that look down their noses at the whole of technology culture, the RSC is on the vanguard as internet presences go. There's the podcast, sure, but they've got a MySpace page and a Facebook group as well. In one podcast, they even discuss, in detail, the relative merits of MySpace versus those of Facebook [MP3]. (My understanding was that MySpace was for poor people, but apparently it's more complicated than that.) And while we're on the subject of geekery, in another podcast they discuss the difference between a "nerd" and a "geek" with The Word Nerds [MP3].

The podcast hits the tubes every Monday, with an average of twenty minutes of content per week. It's quick, and it's slick: they seem to pay as much attention to the music as they do in their live shows — and if you haven't seen one, they're on DVD — and they'll often go the extra mile with conference calls including even more members of the group or segments recorded on location at whatever theater they're playing at the time. And if you're really lucky, they sometimes send an original, Dickens-based audio production your way [MP3].

Humanities scholars say that "reductive" is the worst slur with which you can be tagged. But with their podcast, as with their other ventures, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has proven once again the detachment of humanities scholars from reality. If reduction is wrong, I don't want to be right.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]