Patrick Stewart joins Improvised Shakespeare Company for a night, proves they’re the best improv group on the planet
Last night’s Improvised Shakespeare Company show in New York had a special guest: Patrick Stewart. He’d never improvised with the group before for a full show—wherein a handful of guys creates a spontaneous play in the style of William Shakespeare—and I have a feeling he had absolutely no idea what he was getting into, nor did he really mind. He threw himself into the beautiful experiment with open arms, open-mouth kisses, and full-on crotch grabs. It was surreal to see him up there on stage, and not just because he’s got a good 30 years on everyone else and for most of the show played a variation of his brilliantly pervy “Patrick Stewart” from Extras.
Improvised Shakespeare Company has always been one of my favorites for their unabashed embrace of their admittedly esoteric concept. But moreso than ISC’s ability to snag the eye of someone as famous and gallant as Patrick Stewart (and their ability to work as many Spin Doctors lyrics as possible into a show titled, “Two Princes And The Doctor Of Spin”), I was impressed with the group’s mastery of taking on this outside force of nature. Because as novel as it was to see Patrick Stewart, there was a show to do, and it was touch-and-go for a while.
Adding a new atom can upset the delicate molecule of an improv group, so it’s understandable that Stewart took some time to find his footing. He occasionally mixed up which characters were on stage, since the cast regularly plays multiple people. He entered and exited scenes sometimes randomly, playing a variety of trumpeting messengers because what else was somebody who just showed up supposed to do? And just as things were about to wrap up, he introduced a deus ex machina that involved the fact that this whole time, one of Stewart’s characters had an evil face on the back of his head. He never hesitated, though. He was in this thing, and we rooted for him all the harder because we could tell.
The rest of the boys went with it. All of it. Stewart’s first entrance onto the stage was in a scene with Joey Bland, where within the first few seconds, Joey was kind enough to tell Stewart that he was the decidedly non-regal man Antonio, in love with a princess he could never have. The ultimate gift an improviser can give another is a collection of these simple details, and wherever Stewart’s fascinating mind wandered, members of ISC were there to fill in the gaps. Which, in turn, elevated Stewart to take more risks. He was game for it all, and came off looking like a rock star.
The luster of seeing a famous person on stage wore off pretty quickly. Soon, he was just one of the boys, supported indefinitely by a safety net of positivity and the overwhelming consensus that his insane deus ex machina was, in fact, exactly the kind of thing they’d been planning for this whole time. After all, no one had ever thought to look at the back of Antonio’s head.
In improv terms, this was high praise. Stewart lost his IMDB page on that stage. He was simply a guy trying to make magic happen for those who’d shown up for the performance, and for only those people. ISC’s director Blaine Swen made a plea at the beginning of the show that nobody take out their phones or tape this in any way. This was to be a special evening, and the group’s ability to embody that spirit speaks to their savvy as improvisers, and to their agility as live performers to ensure it remained so.
At one point, when it became clear Blaine was about to kiss Patrick Stewart, he turned to the audience and smiled. Blaine was aware that he was not just doing this for the sake of the show. Aware that this chance might not come again, and fully confident that his group had earned the right to be a little self-serving, he locked lips with Captain Picard.