A woman at a bus stop stares as two grappling men, clearly intoxicated, burst out of the bar. They chase each other down the block, where the fight abruptly comes to an end. The taller of the men, wearing a yellow paper crown and a red sweater draped over his shoulders like a cape, hands a lanyard he had worn around his neck to the other. The woman seems puzzled as she watches the recipient promptly re-enter the bar. Once inside, the victor holds the lanyard high as he exclaims to the bar’s patrons that his foe has been defeated.
The unwitting bystander has just witnessed the death of Macbeth, Shakespearean King of Scotland. The lanyard, held by conqueror Macduff, is meant to represent Macbeth’s head. The actors representing these characters have used every inch of space to perform their art—including the bar’s windows, back entrance, and even the street outside.
This is precisely the point. Inside The Way Station, a small bar on Washington Avenue in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, the boundaries between audience and performers blur. Actors sit at the same tables as patrons—and drink beer alongside them. Patrons become insiders, a feeling heightened as they observe hapless pedestrians react: a young man stares incredulously as he observes a seemingly lifeless man lying on the floor. Another jumps when the entire bar erupts in an angry shout.
Kevin Condardo, Managing Director of Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, explains this is exactly the effect the company wants to achieve. He uses motion to illustrate his point: “We try to get out here,” he says, gesturing emphatically to the floor and bar stools around him. Audience engagement, he explains, is crucial to the achievement of Seven Stages’ goals. The company’s Co-Founders, Christine Penney and Dan Beaulieu, launched ShakesBEERience in 2012. Its mission: to make Shakespeare’s works more socially and financially accessible.
The performances, which occur once a month in each venue, blend classic Shakespeare, improvisation, and alcohol. The actors may or may not have worked together in the past—or know each other at all. Before tonight’s performance, for example, many were busy introducing themselves as they decided how to choreograph their scenes. During the performance, actors read lines from printed scripts or even from their phones. Although this isn’t how people might typically envision a Shakespearean production, Penney says this type of experience is not only true to the era, but crucial to “keep people engaged with Shakespeare.”
It is understandable, then, how an outsider must have felt witnessing Macbeth’s demise. After all, no one would expect, during a walk home on a Monday night, a bar door to be flung open by a bearded man wearing jeans and a hoodie screaming, “murder and treason!” But the relationship that forms between the audience and performers—insiders who share a secret the unsuspecting pedestrians can’t explain, is the very goal of ShakesBEERience. For Penney, this is what makes Shakespeare come to life.