When William Shakespeare got together with Ned Alleyn, the Burbage family, and a couple of other actors to start the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, they were one of the first examples of a time honored tradition that has been passed down to the present day – the talented theatrical collective. Fiasco Theater, a group of friends and Trinity/Brown University alumni currently performing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, are part of that long lineage.
“There are a lot of ways to go about this business we are all in. One way is to go out looking for work and hope that someone hires us. There are others who band together with their friends and like minded artists to make their own work. Over the last 100 years, the theatre has been deeply influenced by the latter impulse,” said Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.
Here are just a few examples of that trend:
- Edelstein’s primary example, Moliere’s company, was born out of failure. Moliere had several ill gotten theatrical enterprises in Paris, forcing him to take to provinces from 1645 to 1658. He and his fellow actors got a break in 1658 when they were invited to perform at the court of King Louis XIV. Moliere’s wit trained itself on the pretentions of contemporary court and artistic life. No one was immune from his well placed gibes. In 1659, Moliere had his first hit, Les precieuses ridicules (The Pretentious Young Ladies), winning him the approbation of the king and his entourage.
- One can argue that New York City-based Group Theatre inspired the naturalistic acting style that characterizes American technique. The company was formed in 1931 by director Harold Clurman, producer Cheryl Crawford, and acting guru Lee Strasburg. They were inspired by the acting techniques of the Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, evolving them into what would become known as “The Method.” Over the company’s decade long run, they presented the world premieres of plays by Clifford Odets and Irwin Shaw, and launched the careers of actors John Garfield, Stella Adler, Will Geer, Howard Da Silva, John Randolph, Lee J. Cobb, and Harry Morgan, among many others. Due to internal strife and siren song of Hollywood, the Group Theater died in 1940.
- The Mercury Theatre shot across the theatrical firmament, running in earnest from 1938 through 1940. Clustered around the unique and myriad gifts of then 22-year-old Orson Welles (and in no small fashion, his producer John Houseman), the company grew out of the Federal Theatre Project, a wing of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. The company reflected Welles’ immense appetites, presenting plays, radio dramas (including the notorious “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and films. The company made its name with theatrical presentations of classic works, like Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Shaw’s Heartbreak House, and an iconic performance of Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock. Welles stayed loyal to his performers when he moved to Hollywood. Mercury actors comprised the majority of the cast of both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
- In 1974, a group of high school friends got together in Deerfield, Illinois to put on a play. That play, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, led to a full season of work in the basement of a Unitarian church. Their first season – Grease, The Glass Menagerie, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – led to the decision to find a permanent home. Those friends were Jeff Perry, Terry Kinney, and Gary Sinise, all of whom would go on to fame and fortune on Hollywood and Broadway, and the company they founded became Steppenwolf Theatre Company, an innovator in the already innovative Chicago theatre scene. The original founders are still involved with Steppenwolf as company members.
Fiasco Theater, with its innovative and personal take on Shakespeare, finds itself as the proud inheritor of a rich tradition.