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Boulevard Bard

Salty Shakespeare stages surprise performances in public, taking classics to the Venice boardwalk, the City Hall lawn -- even jail (after arrest, no less).

December 26, 2011|Jason Kehe

When Shakespeare declared that "all the world's a stage," Nancy Linehan Charles missed the metaphor. She thought he meant it literally.

So for the last six months, she's been taking Shakespeare to the streets, malls, buildings and beaches of Los Angeles -- in pseudo-spontaneous, "flash mob"-style performances. But instead of a crowd breaking into "Thriller" on a New York City subway platform, imagine an edited, streetwise version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on the Venice Beach boardwalk.

The comedy was the debut performance of Salty Shakespeare, a ragtag, unpaid troupe of working actors under Linehan Charles' direction who spend their free time making "like Hansel and Gretel," as she likes to say -- dropping Shakespearean bread crumbs all over Los Angeles.

The company has whispered scenes from "Hamlet" in the elevators of downtown high-rises; shouted politically trenchant lines from "Julius Caesar" and "Coriolanus" at the Occupy L.A. protest; performed for students at Santa Monica College; and even sprung a monologue from "Henry IV" on an unprepared reporter at a Barnes & Noble cafe.

Police have intervened on more than one occasion, but their involvement seems to embolden rather than deter Salty Shakespeare's group of committed, mostly young actors. They're fighting, Linehan Charles says, for the survival of theater itself.

When she attends a play, the veteran stage and screen actress says, "I sit in the audience and I think to myself, 'How quaint.' There used to be a time where there were the actors and there were the people." She adds later, "The way things are going, we're either going to die as a museum or learn how to work with this." "This" being the dramatic changes in the way people consume art in the 21st century.

That was the impetus for her first performance of a sassed-up "Midsummer," in which there would be no clear-cut boundary between actor and spectator. Once she and a partner condensed the play to an hour and 10 minutes, she held a casting call at the Santa Monica Pier carousel, where she encouraged auditioning actors to engage with whomever strolled by. Not everyone liked the idea.

"Actors are very used to that fourth wall that protects them from the audience, but [actors in her troupe] had to be right down there with them," says Linehan Charles. "Some actors said to me, 'I get hives when I hear you even talk about this. I can't imagine interacting with the audience in that way.'"

But for every scaredy-cat, there was a Ryan Martin, a friend of Linehan Charles' who moved from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles when she promised him a spot in the company, or a Hallee Hirsh, a film and television actress who instantly loved the idea of interacting with a crowd. Hirsh, who played the role of a street-rapping Puck in "Midsummer," says it's "unlike anything I've ever done before."

"Standing 3 feet away from someone and pouring your soul out to them, they naturally pour out their souls back," Hirsh says. "The electricity of it is out of control. It's the ultimate rush for an actor."

It's not always easy. Oblivious tourists can walk straight through the performance. Troublemakers try to get a rise out of the actors by interfering or shouting profanity. And the police have a tendency to show up.

Linehan Charles never bothered to get a permit for their initial performance of "Midsummer." On "opening day" in August, they were kicked off the boardwalk and forced to move to the beach. But by that point, the local homeless population had become their "biggest fans." They assumed ushering responsibilities and began directing crowds to the sand. "Salty Shakespeare down there!" they shouted.

The company's second run-in with the law came during a performance at Santa Monica Place. Moments after four Salty Shakespeare actors broke into the teen fight scene from "Midsummer" -- beginning with Kendra Munger's Helena screaming "O spite! O hell!" in the middle of a crowd -- mall security was on top of them. Soon they were pushed out to the curb, where a police car was waiting.

They knew they had to bolt but not before finishing the scene.

"Your hands than mine are quicker for a fray," Munger shouted from the sidewalk, concluding the scene. "My legs are longer though, to run away." Then they scattered.

Most recently, Linehan Charles and a few others were arrested while protesting at Occupy L.A. They later performed scenes from "Othello" for their fellow detainees in jail.

But not every performance ends, as Shakespeare might put it, "with the rusty curb of old father antic the law." Sometimes they just get quizzical looks from passersby; other performances, like the "Hamlet" scenes they performed at Santa Monica College, attract big, supportive crowds.

"It was my first time seeing a play at all," says Magda Solis, a second-year student at SMC.

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