What Can Local Theaters Learn From the Continuing Success of Shakespeare in the Bar?

“Seven minutes 'til the sale starts!”

Shakespeare in the Bar tickets are about to go on sale and my coworkers are coordinating the purchase over the tops of their cubicles. “How many am I buying?" one asks. "Are you going?”

These are normal people counting down seven minutes until theater tickets go on sale. In Dallas. These aren’t even regular theatergoers, but they have attended every SITB performance and they aren’t about to miss one.

Last spring, the SITB team announced they’d be taking an indefinite hiatus as the two founding members headed out of Dallas for jobs and graduate school. The final performance — an upbeat dance party-esque Romeo and Juliet — was held at The Wild Detectives in Bishop Arts.

That Monday night, 200 patrons ranging anywhere from tipsy to “woman loudly speaking to cast members from the porch,” crowded into the backyard at The Wild Detectives. Many were standing. Some were sitting on the fences. Phones were Instagramming, cheers were ringing out and tears were wiped away during the sweetest wedding scene I’ve ever seen on stage.

The crowd even called out “chug, chug!” as Romeo drank a dubious water bottle full of poison.

Co-founders Dylan Key and Katherine Bourne departed Dallas and SITB this fall for new opportunities. The future of the company at that time was uncertain, but the feedback was clear: Dallas was not ready to say goodbye.

In September, SITB officially announced new leadership: Kevin Butler, Jeffrey Colangelo, Janielle Kastner, Marcus Stimac and Katy Tye would take over as producers, and each had already been working with SITB as actors, producers, directors, jacks of all trades. Katy Tye saw for the first time the craziness of the online sale this year. It sold out in less than 45 minutes.

Google Shakespeare in the Bar and you’ll find more than one article about the group and what they’ve accomplished. As an admitted Bard snob, I wasn’t convinced until I saw it myself. What is advertised as “barely rehearsed” is true, but what the team isn’t telling you is that the actors are so good that they come together for one, maybe two rehearsals (mostly) off-book and are ready to go. In some cases the actors haven’t worked together as a unit until the actual production. And all the proceeds go to charity. Last year the company donated nearly $6,000 to Literacy Instruction for Texas.

Tye says the beauty of the new team is that there aren’t fixed positions. No one has assigned roles and those roles can change based on the needs of each production. For their current play, Julius Caesar, Janielle Kastner will direct, produce and handle marketing with Tye. Jeffrey Colangelo and Marcus Stimac worked the script into something manageable and appropriate for the bar setting.

And that can and will change for each show. They like it that way. Tye says there is no plan to formalize the process. The beauty of SITB is in the seeming chaos, but of course, that chaos takes a lot of work.

“Some actors are down for what we do, and some aren’t," says Tye. "That’s OK. She adds that a willingness to “play" and the ability to project over loud bar A/C units are paramount. Seeking out actors up to the task is part of what makes the team so strong. They’ve all been actors in shows themselves so they know what it takes.

“It really does take a special kind of actor," says Tye. "We ease them into it.”

Carlos Guajardo, general manager at The Wild Detectives, loves the collaboration and felt somewhat disappointment when SITB announced the hiatus.

“I thought, well, it was a good run and at least it was ending on a high note," he says. "I did not expect it to continue. But then I started hearing from individual cast members of the desire to keep it going. I was thrilled when they announced new leadership and scheduled another performance. Our customers have been thrilled as well. I’m happy to keep hosting as long as they are willing to keep producing. There are still plenty of Shakespeare plays.”

A barely rehearsed Shakespeare play in the backyard was a “no brainer,” says Guajardo. Part of the rules of an SITB play require the audience and cast to take a drink every time an actor forgets a line. 
“It totally fit in with the mission of The Wild Detectives, which was to bring literary and cultural events to the neighborhood, and to do it in a way that was engaging, fun, unique and maybe even a little irreverent. I knew that the event would be a draw, but I had no idea it would take on a life of its own.”

It’s a testament to the timelessness of The Bard, but it’s also a clue to theaters desperate to crack the market of young theatergoers: Just go where they already go. It’s like a reverse Field of Dreams for the arts.

And it works. Tye says it’s actually not something novel. “This is likely what was happening in Shakespeare’s day," she says. "People were standing around, yelling at the actors. They were a part of the show. This is what we love about these audiences: their willingness to play.”

Julius Caesar will play, barely rehearsed, twice — once on Monday, Nov. 7, at The Wild Detectives (314 W. 8th St.) and then on Monday, Nov. 14, at The Ginger Man (2718 Boll St.). Tickets are $7.
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Katy Lemieux is a Dallas-based writer covering theater and the arts. She is a mother to two beautiful human children and three beautiful animal children. She has been published in Esquire Magazine, Texas Monthly, D Magazine, TheaterJones, American Theatre Magazine and most notably The Senior Voice.

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