Shit-Faced Shakespeare Boozes Up the Bard

Shit-Faced ShakespearePhoto by Rah Petherbridge Photography.

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“Give me some wine; fill full. I drink to the general joy of the whole table.” — Macbeth, from “Macbeth,” Act 3, Scene 4.

Hey, think about it: If we change “table” to “theater,” you know what we’ve got there? A business plan!

Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly how Shit-Faced Shakespeare came about. But if you’re looking for the Bard’s imprimatur on their alcohol- imbued performances, it’s pretty close.

The actors of SFS (for brevity’s sake) stage hour-long adaptations of Shakespeare plays with one important twist: A single cast member is inebriated. Not tipsy, not buzzing, but truly blotto. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy or history, from the moment the curtain rises to when it falls, that cast member plays their part drunk.

Laura Sullivan has been that actor, as well as playing roles sober and producing performances over the past four years. She says this twist has proven appealing to audiences.

“One of the things we always say is, people come for the shit-faced and end up staying for the Shakespeare,” says Sullivan, who joined in 2015 to do PR when SFS established its U.S. headquarters in Somerville, then segued into acting. “They don’t realize this isn’t just a free-for-all and put together on a whim. We’re fully rehearsed, we have professional actors, and we do this year-round across the globe.”

Verily. The troupe was founded in the United Kingdom by an actor named Lewis Ironside (“It’s almost like he made it up,” Sullivan says of his suspiciously actor-ish name, “but he didn’t—I’ve met his parents!”), who still runs the show as the “Chair Chap.” Sullivan recounted Ironside’s story of how he started the whole operation.

“Lewis came up with the idea one night when he was out drinking with some of his buddies, all of them performers,” she says. “The next morning they woke up and there was a cocktail napkin with two ideas written down on it. He told me, ‘I can’t remember the first one, but the second was Shit-Faced Shakespeare.’

“That cocktail napkin wound up providing 10 years of employment” for actors, she adds.

After a couple of rough performances at the start, the original crew finally figured out how to make it work.

“We have an hour to do it in, and we throw someone who’s inebriated into the mix,” says Sullivan. “They are the master of chaos, and it’s our job to make sure the story gets told—whether or not Romeo and Juliet live at the end, or the friar is standing by himself. It’s wicked fun!”

There is a very strict process by which each night’s inebriated actor has their blood alcohol level raised. It’s done by what they call “the Crock-Pot method”—starting four hours before show time, sipping not chugging, and in the company of friends.

“We do take great care ofour people, make sure they’re feeling great, in a great mindset, and surrounded by positivity,” she says.

It also turns out that the alcohol-augmented plays are actually more approachable for a lot of folks in the audience. But that doesn’t mean that dedicated Shakespeareans won’t come away enlightened, too. Sullivan says that there’s a dram of In vino, veritas to be found: “The snootiest amongst the people come and go, ‘Wow, I never understood that was what was happening in that scene, and what those characters meant.’”

Shit-Faced Shakespeare is kicking off its sixth season with “Macbeth,” and Sullivan says it’s always a big boost to see the people coming back week after week, often with relatives or friends in tow to experience it for the first time.

“We’re super-psyched we’ve been in Somerville since we started in the U.S.,” says Sullivan. “It’s good to know A) people still like us, and B) they’re not sick of us.”

This story appears in the Scout’s Honored 2019 print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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