April 2024
A Party with a Plot
The Tempest at The Raven Café

Forget traditional theatres and hushed audiences, The Wit’s Shakesbeer Southwest brings the Bard's timeless works to life in the most unexpected of places, all while indulging in a favorite tipple.

This ensemble of actors is dedicated to combining the brilliance of Shakespeare's plays with the conviviality of enjoying a drink with friends. Performances happen in bars, restaurants, art galleries, places where the ‘fourth wall,’ that invisible line separating audience and performers, does not exist.

Regional Artistic Director Jacob D’Armand sees this as a return to the original Shakespearean style of performance. “[Shakespeare] was writing for everybody, from the groundlings, the sort of lowest class, the poorest of the poor, to the royalty and everyone in between, and when these plays were originally performed, they were performed by and for people who were mostly illiterate. They were absorbing this story, whatever the story was, in a place that was also a restaurant, a tavern, a brothel and a sort of business-meeting place.”

The Wit originated in Denver to meet a desire to perform Shakespeare’s plays in nontraditional locations. In 2015 the group saw the growing popularity of craft breweries and found excellent partnerships. As D’Armand’s personal and family goals brought him back to Prescott, where he was raised, The Wit Southwest was born.

What sets this organization apart isn't just the choice of venues, it’s the approach to the performances themselves. As the audience settles in with their libations, the actors take the stage, infusing each scene with energy, passion and perhaps a hint (or more) of liquid courage. Whether it’s delivering soliloquies over the clinking of glasses or staging sword fights amid the chatter of patrons, the result is a dynamic and immersive experience that captivates audiences.

“I think it takes away the pretense,” D’Armand says. “I think that having the drinks in hand kind of removes the assumption that it’s stuffy. It removes the assumption that you have to maintain this almost snobbery about it. I mean, Shakespeare has this sort of air about it, where it’s difficult to understand and then it makes [audiences] feel under-educated.”

Staging performances in unconventional locations comes with its own set of challenges, of course. From navigating noise levels to adapting to makeshift sets, the actors must remain flexible and adaptable. Yet it’s precisely these obstacles that fuel the creativity and ingenuity, leading to performances that are as spontaneous as they are engaging. Says D’Armand, “Shakesbeer makes it easy for non-theatregoers and seasoned audiences and artists alike to engage, sort of in spite of traditional theatre notions.”

Beneath the revelry and merriment lies a deeper purpose. The Wit isn't just about entertaining audiences; it’s also about fostering a sense of community and connection. D’Armand says, “We are trying to build up a theatre community, not just a community theatre. I think the reasons vary from person to person, but it’s about sharing an experience. Both in rehearsals and during a performance, we’re trying to put the people back in the center.”

You can join the party at the next Shakesbeer presentation, an abridged version of The Tempest, at The Raven on April 20 and 27. This presentation may contain off-color jokes and mature language. The performances are free to attend, although audiences are encouraged to show their appreciation at the end of the show with tips (which are shared among the actors).

Not all The Wit’s performances are done with drinks in hand. On the first two weekends of May the group will be presenting Hamlet at The Art Hive. Committed to nontraditional presentations, this will be an immersive experience: the audience will physically join the actors as they move from scene to scene.

One thing is clear, The Wit’s Shakesbeer Southwest has succeeded in its mission to make Shakespeare both accessible and enjoyable for all. With its unique blend of tradition and innovation, it proves that great theatre, and great fun, can be found in the most unlikely places.

For more visit facebook.com/ShakesbeerSouthwest.

Lizabeth Rogers covers the local-theatre beat.

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