Austin Tichenor is an actor and Managing Partner of The Reduced Shakespeare Company – as well as Co-Writer and Co–Director of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), soon to tour Australia. He spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.
An early/childhood theatre memory Austin, a time when you were absolutely enchanted by the stage?
It was a production of The Wizard of Oz and I remember three things: being dazzled by the whole thing; so dazzled I really wanted to meet Dorothy ‘cause I thought she was awesome; and being so scared of the Lion that I hid behind my mother’s skirts when I saw the actors in costume in the lobby. I was four.
Tell me a potted history about your early stage training?
My earliest “training” was the thing I still most highly recommend: Learning by Doing: puppet shows in kindergarten, musicals and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in high school, and technical theatre with local ballet companies and orchestras.
Was there a formative Shakespeare moment during your training?
While getting my MFA in Directing at Boston University, I was roped into playing Claudius in Hamlet (because I am, as my friends will tell you, the personification of evil). I worked on the text with a great voice teacher named Robert Chapline, and once I began to speak those speeches, it was like learning a new language or to play a musical instrument. Plus sword-fighting!
How do you describe the Reduced Shakespeare company in seven words?
Making long serious topics short and funny.
How do you describe the CWOG narrative in seven words?
We’re celebrating the Bible through reverent irreverence.
For the benefit of AS readers tell me about the formation of the company?
The RSC started as a busking act at Renaissance Faires in 1981 by three Californians who had a shared passion for busty wenches and iambic pentameter. They took their first play to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1987, thinking it’d be their swan song, but that led to international touring, even greater reduction, and a nine-year run in London’s West End.
Tell me something about theatre experiences that truly enthralled you Austin?
My greatest experiences almost always involve the audience. I saw a university production of Cabaret staged in a dining hall where regular non-costumed students stood up in the audience wearing swastika armbands and singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. Chilling. And when I’m performing in RSC shows, I’m always hugely impressed at the audience members who are so caught up in what we’re doing they start to play along without even knowing it.
Is the RSC (same acronym as the Royal Shakespeare Company) inspired by other theatre companies – tell me about this source of inspiration?
Yes, it’s come to our attention that some upstart company in the UK has stolen our initials. We’re pursuing legal action. We’ve been inspired by many professional theatre companies; in fact, when I joined the company in 1992 and began co-creating all of our “Complete (abridged)” comedies, the idea was to turn this summer holidays busking act into a professional theatre with a company of actors performing a repertoire of plays in our “house style” of serious silliness and intellectual vaudeville.
How did you go about writing this new work Austin, struck by lightning, baptism by fire?
After condensing the complete works of Shakespeare and abridging the complete history of America, taking on religion seemed like the next logical step. We were approached by an Israeli TV producer to reduce the Bible for the small screen. That fell through, but the idea wouldn’t die.
Tell me in about the bible?
The three guys who attempt to reduce the Bible into ninety minutes don’t know that what they’re attempting is impossible. That’s funny. But even if they did know it was impossible they’d do it anyway. That’s admirable. And being too stupid to know what you’re doing for the entertainment of others? That’s America.
Is there a quote from the play that continues to make it difficult for you to keep a straight face?
Again, it comes back to the audience. I know all the scripted lines so well they don’t make me laugh anymore. But I never know what the audience is going to do, and sometimes I’ll be bowled over by something we say in response to something they say.
In this secular age what makes a play like this matter?
I’m not a religious person: I rarely look to ancient texts for wisdom and enlightenment, except possibly Shakespeare and every once in a while Star Trek. But the Bible is still one of the fundamental texts of our civilization. And my form of tribute for anything I love is to celebrate it by making fun of it. Ask my wife and kids.
Indeed – what makes humour matter right now?
When has humor ever not mattered?
Les Currie presents
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
***PLEASE NOTE – THIS TOUR HAS BEEN CANCELLED***
Photos – Eric Vizents