Free Shakespeare Company
By Frank Farrell:

When we incorporated in 1981 we were occupying a rough theatre space behind Second City on North Ave and Wells St. in Chicago, 1616 N. Wells. Free Shakespeare performed it's first theatrical production in this theatre space which evolved into the current space called Second City ETC. Free Shakespeare presented a few acts from both The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream as it's first presentation to the public.

How did Free Shakespeare Start? Months before this presentation, I had offered a free class in Shakespeare for actors. The class was popular and started in Links Hall on N. Clark in Chicago. I was a member of the Second City Touring Company and I was studying with Paul Sills and he suggested that I conduct my Shakespeare class at the Second City space he was teaching in. Paul Sills, one of the founders of Second City, had returned to Chicago after being away for quite a while. He was conducting an improvisation class, which I was attending. On some spring weekend afternoon a large crowd showed up to see our scenes from two Shakespeare plays. We had sent out publicity but we were very surprised with the huge turnout. As Valentine, a character I played in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I rode in on a ten speed bike and I remember some man and his guest wanted their money back. He was shocked to see the bike and felt it had no place in a play by Shakespeare. This presentation was the beginning of the Free Shakespeare Company. I remember Paul was upset that our scene presentation had opened in the space before his story theatre production of The Singing Bone, which opened soon after. Some of the audience may have thought they were seeing a Paul Sills production. The Chicago Reader may have helped give that impression. I was in The Singing Bone and was also in two other shows directed by Sills around this time: The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Golden Key.

Free Shakespeare began as a Shakespeare text class for actors. When it was incorporated in 1981 Free Shakespeare was presenting late night presentations of Shakespeare in the manner described in the book Free Shakespeare by John Russell Brown and it was begining to present productions rehearsed and performed in the more usual manner, with a director and many rehearsals, in prime time (8pm) slots. The concept John Russell Brown espoused was one where there would not be a director in the process and no rehearsals, maybe one or two. This manner of presentation harkens back to the manner in which these plays were first presented. Richard II, directed by Tom Irwin, with me in the title role, was presented in another space behind Second City that had years before showed erotic art films. Richard II may have been Free Shakespeare's first presentation in this fixed up, small theatre space. This other Second City Space, one time called the Aardvark, was where Free Shakespeare remained for the rest of the time that I remained as the company's artistic director and sometime actor.

As far as other performing venues used by Free Shakespeare: I initiated touring productions of Shakespeare to High Schools, which became very popular. Free Shakespeare performed short runs and one nighters at the Theatre Building, the Vic, some small space near Loyola University and quite a few mall locations. Free Shakespeare had an improv team at one time while I was its artistic director and we came in 2nd place at the very first Improv Olympics. Free Shakespeare presented a 24 hour marathon of many of Shakespeare's plays on his birthday. I think it was presented over a weekend in April of 1982. Free Shakespeare also presented a 12 or 8 hour marathon a year later, maybe earlier, maybe later, but this event was presented in a mall and was put together at the request of a men's clothing store in the mall, which was very close to Second City. After I resigned from Free Shakespeare, although maybe it was before I left the group, I remember there were outdoor Free Shakespeare productions in Oz Park in Chicago. I left because I had joined Actors' Equity Association. My heart was in acting and I was not able to act anymore for Free Shakepeare, since it was a non-AEA company.

I would agree that Free Shakespeare played from 1981-85, but I wouldn't be surprised if the official date of the company's ending was one or two years later.

Source: E-mail, July 10, 2007

Associated with the following events...
Associated with the following people...