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‘Shit-Faced Shakespeare’ is Shakespeare Shaken, Not Stirred

The cast of Shit-Faced Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" at The Rockwell.
The cast of Shit-Faced Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" at The Rockwell. By Courtesy of Kayle Ebner
By Gabrielle A. David, Crimson Staff Writer

Rhyming couplets done on the fly, leaving audiences laughing until they cry. With grace and good beer, no improv shall be feared. This, and more, is to be expected from the spirited shenanigans — emphasis on the spirit — of “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” at The Rockwell in Somerville.

“It’s a gimmick, for sure, we would never deny that,” producing director Brett Milanowski said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “But our gimmick is sort of our first taste, if you will — the entrée into something that we actually put a great deal of time and love into, which is sort of our guilty secret.”

“Shit-Faced Shakespeare” was started by Lewis Ironside and Chris Snelson in the U.K. in 2010 and moved to the U.S. in 2015, where it has remained in Somerville at The Rockwell for the last nine years. Ironside, the current artistic director, adapts and designs each Shakespeare play that the cast performs, cutting them down to one hour of pure comedy while remaining faithful to the story's intention.

Fittingly, the initial idea of the company began as a shit-faced, scrawled note on a pub napkin.

“It really was [Ironside] and his buddy, just drunkenly brainstorming. They were kind of sad and upset about their future. And they got hammered at a bar one night, and made notes to make each other laugh,” Milanowski said. “Then, the next morning, they were like, ‘Well, that was useless.’ And they looked through the notes and someone had written ‘shit-faced Shakespeare.’ So that’s where it came from.”

One thing led to the next, and soon they performed for the first time at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It wasn’t a charmed beginning — the first show was a disaster.

“They got 10 minutes into the show, and [the drunk actor] absolutely passed out, completely immovable,” Milanowski said.

“Lewis, the next day at the festival, went to the ticket booth to say, ‘Clearly, we’ve canceled our show.’ The ticket person said ‘Well, you’re sold out tonight, you’re sold out tomorrow night.’ He was like, ‘How is that possible?’ And they said, ‘Word got around the festival that you guys actually tried to kill someone in your show last night.’ And it became a hot ticket,” Milanowski added.

Trial and error led to the current rigorous standards put into place to ensure that all parties involved — inebriated or not — are safe and cared for. Tyler Rosati — actor, director, and self-described as Milanowski’s “unofficial right-hand man” — has been with the company for nine years and discussed the importance of these standards. He placed a particular emphasis on communication.

“We have this lovely support system,” Rosati said. “You don’t have to drink if you’re scheduled to drink. You have to check in before you drink where you’re like, here’s what feels good for me. Here’s what doesn’t feel good for me. Here’s something I want to talk about. Here’s something that's off limits, and that goes with the body too. And so you just have this network of support and care to meet you where you’re at today.”

Rosati explained that there are three relationships happening simultaneously — between the drunk and the audience, between the drunk and their fellow actors, and between the drunk and the compère. As the person who introduces the show and its stakes, it is the compère’s job to be the ringleader of the troupe for the night. They explain the rules of the show, hand out the instruments for the audience interaction, and have the ability to step in at any point to ensure the performance is on the right track. It’s the compère who keeps everyone in check.

“The compère is one of the most important characters in our show for a couple of reasons. What the compère does is protect the drinker and really become their conscience — their Jiminy Cricket that says, ‘Hey, I’m here to make you look the best you can.’ They’re protecting them from the audience to make sure they’re always in the audience’s best views,” Rosati said.

Speaking of the audience, Noelle Scarlett — an actor who has been with the troupe since 2020 — discussed the interactions that are involved in each show.

“We hand out [these] instruments. It gives [the audience] that interactive component, which is really exciting,” Scarlett said. “We obviously have one moment in every show where an audience member is pulled onto the stage. So that’s always really exciting. I think what’s great about that is that we have people, plenty of returning audience members, that have come to our shows multiple times.”

The other half of the audience tends to be newcomers, Scarlett explained.

Reflecting on how the drinking contributes to the production, Scarlett brought up how it adds to the entertainment value of the show, allowing for people from all walks of life to feel immersed and intrigued in the premise.

“By the nature of adding that chaos, that component, it makes it more accessible,” Scarlett said. “People are like, ‘Oh, I can enjoy Shakespeare. I actually kind of understand what's going on. And I’m enjoying myself.’”

While audience interaction is important to the show and brings in new and old alike, the actors’ health is just as important. There are two actors for each part in the show, so that for any given run, one actor is taking a day off.

“The show does not have to go on. We will find a way,” Olivia “Liv” Dumaine, the Boston-based intimacy coordinator who has also acted with the company for two years, said.

The nature of “Shit-Faced Shakespeare" is improv, which is often known as the “yes, and” type of comedy — meaning that performers accept and springboard off the improvisation of another actor. “Shit-Faced Shakespeare,” however, challenges that ideology with the concept of “no, but.” The performers have established boundaries and work within them to create a hilarious and meaningful show.

“Things don’t always have to be ‘yes, and.’ In fact, ‘no, but’ is actually way more interesting,” Dumaine said.

All of the actors, directors, and coordinators put in the work to balance the chaos that patrons expect with the security that the actors need.

“People come for the drinker, which they should. It’s fun, that’s its own game,” Milanowski said. “It is ridiculous and a dumb idea — and we probably shouldn’t do it, but we do.”

But beyond the hilarity of its productions, “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” wants to convey the magic of Shakespeare.

“We can move people who never thought they would understand or like Shakespeare, because these are universal themes — these are themes of humanity that stretch across time and space with the magic of the sound of the words. The poetry really moves people who didn’t know they could be moved,” Milanowski said.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and “Much Ado About Nothing” is the company’s last performance in The Rockwell. While they cannot disclose their future location, the company will remain in Boston.

But in the meantime, stop by for a drink, a laugh, and maybe a cry for a short spell — catch “Shit-Faced Shakespeare” for an intimate performance like no other.

Shit-Faced Shakespeare’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” runs from May 3 to June 22 at The Rockwell.

—Staff writer Gabrielle A. David can be reached at

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