The Reduced Shakespeare Company takes us from the beginning of civilization to now, one joke at a time.
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” This motto sums up the essence of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, famous for condensing grand and serious subjects (including The Bible, American history, “Great Books” and, of course, Shakespeare) into fast-paced, three-actor farces.
The “other RSC” – not to be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Company – was founded in 1981 by Daniel Singer, Jess Winfield and Adam Long, who performed a 25-minute version of Hamlet at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Novato. For several years, they continued to play Renaissance fairs around California, adding Romeo and Juliet to their repertoire in 1983. In 1987, the first full-length RSC show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, establishing the company’s international reputation. Since then, Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin – current RSC writers, performers and managing partners – have written eight more touring stage shows and made a variety of TV and radio appearances, including a six-episode BBC radio show and a PBS special.
The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) is RSC’s ninth and newest show. It was developed with a workshop production in Napa, and premiered at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in November 2013. This time, RSC tackles the one subject more central to their existence than Shakespeare: humor itself. Tichenor and Martin discussed the process of creating The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) with us, and considered the importance of humor in all of our lives.
The show’s framing device is a fictional ancient Chinese treatise on humor, The Art of Comedy, which the two writers conceived as a means to codify the major forms of comedy and give the script a logical sequence and structure. “[Some]thing we figured out – and we’re not the first ones to call attention to it – is the very close relationship between comedy and violence,” remarked Tichenor. “Even that the language of comedy and violence is similar: you know, you go out there to ‘kill,’ you don’t want to ‘die’ onstage, you don’t want to ‘bomb’ onstage… Everybody knows about The Art of War, written by Chinese general Sun Tzu; well we ‘discovered’ The Art of Comedy… This show needed a way to define what we were going to talk about, and the thirteen chapters of The Art of Comedy did that.”
Martin continued, “We write the sketches first, and sometimes we know what the framework is and sometimes we don’t. So on this one, we started with lots of sketches that we liked, and then it’s retrofitting – ‘What’s the construct? How do we justify it?’”
While The Art of Comedy provides that framework, the real justification comes from their zany physical humor and from the delicate balance between total irreverence and a serious appreciation for the value of comedy. Said Martin, with no outward irony, “People don’t take comedy seriously,” a statement that itself shows RSC’s dedication to the form and their ability to turn a phrase.
“The trick, for me,” Tichenor said, “Was to find a way to justify why this [topic] is so important to me. And in a certain way, comedy is my religion and the theater is my temple, and that’s a glib response, but it’s kind of true. But also, that was a good starting point, because I figured out that I can exaggerate that aspect of something that I truly feel and turn it into something.”
Now RSC has made it their mission to spread the good word and, if comedy is their religion, we promise you’re about to experience church like you never have before.
Want to hear more? Go to marintheatre.org/productions/learn-more/the-complete-history-of-comedy/ for links to full episodes of RSC podcasts.