Going to the Fringe

Apr 20, 2014

Samantha Whittaker and Russ Bain“Is Shylock really a villain? Is Macbeth?” These are the questions poised by the devotees of Shakespeare who constitute the California Shakespeare Ensemble.

Villains, which debuted in November 2013, questions what it means to be a villain and speculates that “The Bard’s more complex villains may actually show us how much evil is in all of us.” So Shylock of Merchant of Venice fame, as well as Macbeth (Macbeth), and Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet) have been “taken out of their respective plays, reassembled Frankenstein-style, and finally got to be the focus of their own stories,” while only using Shakespeare’s original words.

CSE Villains

“Seeing it as an audience member, you’re really struck by how differently these characters play when you extract them from the story as a  whole, “ says CSE member Roddy Jessup.


Jeremy Radin who plays Shylock says, “All of these people become villains because they’re forced to make a choice and we are dumped into that moment of them being forced to make this choice, right there, in that moment with this edit…and that choice is generally like whether to move away from or towards their own humanity and dignity; and right now I think that’s a really important thing to be exploring.”

To learn a bit more about CSE, we chatted with Artistic Director Brian Elerding:

HP:  Congrats on your sold-out shows…

BE:  Hey, thanks!

HP:  What do you think made Villains such a draw? What do you all enjoy about it?

BE:  I think people know that Shakespeare is supposed to be enjoyable, but a lot of times it hasn’t been for the theater-going public. I think people got interested in Villains because even the name implies that this is something more than your usual experience at a classical theater performance. And it is!

I think what we’re enjoying about the show is that Shakespeare didn’t write two-dimensional bad guys.  Almost every character he wrote (and he wrote hundreds of characters) has their own motivations, their own context, and is the protagonist of their own story. When you take his “villains” out of their respective stories as we know them, a magical thing happens; they have a story all of their own. How do you make Shylock a likable guy? Tybalt? Macbeth? That’s where we get to have fun as storytellers.

Shahaub Roudbari as Tybalt

Shahaub Roudbari as Tybalt

HP:  How did you choose your villains? Just favorites or was there a criteria?

BE:  I knew I wanted to do a show about Shakespeare’s villains, but I really had to read the entire canon again in order to figure out what the story actually was. In reading through his plays, I found that Shakespeare liked to give his antagonists great conflict. I saw entire story arcs in a few of his antagonists, but the ones that fired me up the most were Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet, and the Macbeths from Macbeth. So I guess you could say I went looking to Shakespeare himself to see what he felt about villains.  In the end, I think he loves them, so I tried to do the same.

HP:  Now that CSE is entering its third season, what have you found to be the greatest challenges and/or obstacles to putting on shows, being seen, etc.

BE:  I grew up in Altadena and went to school in Pasadena. I’ve always thought of Pasadena and Altadena as places where the arts flourished. I think, though, even in an artistically inclined city, there’s the age-old challenge of getting people to come to your shows, find parking, shell out their hard-earned money, and sit in a dark room trusting that you won’t waste their time. We take that very seriously, but word spreads slowly when you’re just starting out. The good news is that we’re selling out constantly, so word must be getting around somehow!

Kate Siegel Lady Macbeth

Kate Siegel as Lady Macbeth

HP:  Are there “things” you have found that worked particularly well and/or things that didn’t turn out the way you’d expected or didn’t have the “return” you’d desired? 

BE:  Oh, definitely. On the successful side, chasing a good story will always get you where you want to go. Human beings love a good story more than any other part of a play or movie (though good costumes and sets always help!). Things that have surprised us by not turning out the way we’d hoped—trying to do shows on Mother’s Day and Fathers’ Day. Those were hilariously low turnouts for our shows, and we learned an important lesson about timing.

HP:  Have your initial goals and aim for CSE remained constant or evolved? How did you hook up with Descanso?

BE:  We initially hooked up with Descanso Gardens because I’ve been going there since I was a child, and their Under The Oaks theater seemed like a beautiful place to do Shakespeare.  I think when we started we didn’t quite know what to expect.  Any artistic endeavor is a risk, of course, and I don’t think we realized at the beginning how much of a need there was for what we do. Los Angeles has plenty of classical theater companies, but I think there’s room for every group that brings its unique voice to great stories. I’ve gotten to know so many incredibly talented actors, musicians and designers over the years that I had a built-in reservoir of talent to draw from. Combine those artists with Shakespeare’s great stories, and then most of my job as director becomes simply saying “keep going!”

Shakespeares Villains

BE:  This year we’re taking on the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh…

HP:  Does one get invited to the Fringe festival or may anyone go?

BE:  Anyone can go, but to get into a good venue one has to apply and be accepted. We’re at a great venue, right in the middle of the action in an area called The Royal Mile, which is the heart of the Fringe Festival.


The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (official name), held the first three weeks of August, is dubbed as the world’s largest and most important independent theater festival and has been growing since its inception in 1947.

p_miriam-margolyes_by David Rose_Telegraph“I think the Fringe is vital,” says actress Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter feature films), “because it stimulates new work. I love it. I think it is an important, unique experience. Every young person who wants to make a career in the theater, in dance, in music, in cabaret, should be here testing out their wares, learning from seeing what other people are doing. What an opportunity the Fringe offers. It’s nourishing art in every form.”

Alan-Cumming-by-Peter-Hapak“There’s nothing else like it,” says actor Alan Cumming (X-Men 2, The Good Wife, Spy Kids). “There’s no other festival in the world that has that level of excitement and energy and intensity.”

suggs“What an extraordinary experience to see this amount of creativity in one place” adds Graham “Suggs” McPherson, lead vocalist of the hugely popular (early to mid-80s) ska band Madness.

George Wendt of Cheers television fame says, “The Edinburgh Fringe is important because it’s fun; people need fun in their lives.”

Want to help Brian and the California Shakespeare Ensemble take Villains to the 2014 “Ed Fringe”?

An Indiegogo campaign has been organized to raise funds to take the ensemble to Scotland to perform, be seen, and be inspired. CSE has 15 days left in the campaign with the goal of raising $23,000 to cover flight costs, accommodation, festival costs, etcetera. Some of the perks for donating include The Famous Mug, a fan favorite called “Shakespeare’s Ghost”…

Shakespeare image by Will Staehle

…a paperback book of Villains, tickets to upcoming shows, a Villains t-shirt featuring Shylock, Macbeth, and Tybalt designed by Will Staehle (who designed the cover for Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), and a vintage edition of Shakepeare’s plays as chosen by Director Brian Elerding who likes to collect the old and the odd.

CSE Villains

Check out CSE’s Indiegogo campaign here:


California Shakespeare Ensemble’s current season includes a conceptual staged reading called Henry V:  A Bedtime Story, Fairy Tales in the Garden at Descanso, and on May 25th at the Rose Festival, Descanso Gardens, CSE will give a reading of Much Ado About Nothing. For more info, visit




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