ShakesBEER: Raise a Glass to a Pint-Sized Bard

Chris Corporandy in a New York Shakespeare Exchange's Twelfth Night. Photo: Kalle Westerling.

Ross Williams is a longtime, self-described “Shakespeare theater nerd” who decided, in 2011, that he’d heard one too many people say, “I don’t like Shakespeare” and thus founded New York Shakespeare Exchange. Not only does he remain the company’s artistic director, he admits that he “tries to bring up the Bard in just about every conversation.” One of New York Shakespeare Exchange’s most popular projects is ShakesBEER — a kind of interactive pub crawl. This month, the company returns with a new edition. In an interview with the CFR, Williams described how it unfolds:

Imagine, if you will, sitting in one of Manhattan’s finest watering holes, enjoying a delicious adult beverage, surrounded by friends (and a bunch of people you know you’d be friends with if you’d met them before now), when suddenly an actor stands on top of the bar and croons, ‘But soft! What light through yonder window breaks!’ That’s ShakesBEER. We demystify Shakespeare by bringing the performances up close and personal in a place that audiences already associate with fun. And the party continues as we hop from one bar to the next!

When done well and with an eye toward the modern world, Williams argues that the worlds of Hamlet, The Comedy of Errors and Richard III can really get under an audience’s skin — not only to serve as intensely gratifying entertainment but to act a powerful force for change. Williams grew up in northern Alabama, where access to Shakespeare was limited, but in college and especially during 15 years as an active theater professional, he has stayed ardently in love with the possibilities of Shakespeare’s poetry — and the timeless and universal truths contained within them.

ShakesBEER consists of four performances at four different bars in downtown Manhattan between 3pm and 6pm on Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, 2017. Tickets are $49 but do include four drink tickets. For additional information, please click here.

And now, 5 questions that Ross Williams has never been asked:

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What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I love when people ask, “How did you make Shakespeare so easy to understand?” While not the most intricate of questions, it gets right to the heart of why I formed New York Shakespeare Exchange. There is way too much bad Shakespeare in the world, and a lot of people form their “I don’t like Shakespeare” opinions based on that work. When performed by skilled classical actors with attention to interpreting the language honestly and emotionally, Shakespeare is incredibly easy to hear and satisfying to engage with.

Why is the Bard still important?

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

Our last crawl was part of Origin Theatre’s First Irish Festival, and for the special occasion we included one scene from Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. The scene references Hollywood and movies and even mail-order sweets from the US. Still, at the end of the crawl, one audience member asked if Shakespeare wrote that scene. Now, it should be noted that this was at the very end of a very festive ShakesBEER, so brain function may have been hindered a bit.

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

I guess the weirdest question — and I actually get it a lot — is “Why is Shakespeare still important?” I totally understand why people want to ask it, but as a Shakespeare nerd of the nerdiest nerd-dom, to me it’s a no-brainer. Shakespeare reveals so much to us about the world, our world. And the poetry of it is simply musical. I think Shakespeare, when done well, can truly elevate humanity.

Elizabeth Neptune, Nathaniel P. Claridad in As You Like It. Photo: Martin Harris.

Talk about Shakespeare as a pub crawl. If pubs have uninterested people already hanging out in them, how do you deal with them? Any super-crazy, unexpected situations ever arise at a “performance”?

All the bars are within easy walking distance of each other. For January, we are on Stone Street in downtown Manhattan. We spend 45 minutes in each of the four bars on a Saturday afternoon between 3pm and 6pm. About halfway through our stay in each bar, a scene erupts in the middle of the crowd. We jump on tables, climb on the bar, crawl across banquettes and basically take over the joint. And yes, sometimes there are “locals” hanging out before we get there. When we arrive, we visit everyone and give them a heads-up about the awesomeness they are about to witness. I’d say that 90% of the time everyone is thrilled. We have, on rare occasion, gotten a little side-eye, though. One time, in a bar that shall remain nameless, there was a group of old-school construction workers who had just finished their shift. We were clearly in their regular spot, and they puffed up and got really macho about not being into Shakespeare. But here’s the amazing part. While they didn’t necessarily know quite what to do with us, their ringleader knew the lines from the scene! So yes, he may have been catcalling a bit, but he was doing it in character. The whole thing ended up being pretty incredible, and I’m fairly certain they went home with a story about “this crazy Shakespeare performance” that happened in their bar.

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Name the four best beers for Bard-watching, and why. Then name the four baddest beers — what people should drink if they seriously don’t get what New York Shakespeare Exchange is all about.

Keep in mind that, despite the BEER in our title, our drink tickets are good for wine, beer and booze. That said, I do think beer goes particularly well with the Bard. I lean toward the big flavors of British and Irish beers: Guinness, Smithwick’s, Newcastle and Bodington’s. As for the worst, Shakespeare makes reference in several of his plays to “small beer,” which is low-alcohol and somewhat watered down. And believe me, his opinion of it is low. This leads me to think that Shakespeare would have had great disdain for anything “lite.” Probably Mich Ultra would be at the bottom of his list.

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“Bonus” question:

We’re sure — like, quite sure — none of your actors have ever, ever tippled in a performance. But if one of your actors were to, er, have a little, and then, uh, have a little more, and then, er, have a little more after that, would it improve the Shakespeare? Are we all just groundlings waiting to throw our peanuts?

Nope. It has never happened. Not once. Actors are, by nature, very well-behaved. There’s no way. Absolutely not. Under no circums — OK! Maybe occasionally. The fact is, Shakespeare and drinking go really well together and Shakespeare’s actors were definitely drinking. But our commitment to making sure the language is clear has to come first (these lines are hard enough to get across in chaotic venues). Most of the time, our ensemble waits until the end of the show to start the party. Sometimes, though, we translate the scene into a more drink-laden reality (a teen Juliet sneaking a Mike’s Hard Lemonade on her balcony, for instance) and in those cases we do go for, well, reality. Mostly though, we’ll leave the drinking to you and you can leave the Shakespeare to us!