After a successful run at theater festivals last summer, a play by Maggie Seymour ’16 and Olivia Atwood ’17 has been picked up by The Peoples Improv Theater in New York City.
Seymour and Atwood’s 15 Villainous Fools brings elements of chaos and clowning to an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. They will perform it more than a dozen times this summer between July 7 and August 19.
Peoples Improv, a 15-year-old comedy theater and training center on West 29th St., trumpets15 Villainous Fools like this: “Following a rockstar run at FringeNYC, these two ladies bring pandemonium and a tornado of unstoppable energy to Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. It’s wacky. It’s wild. It’s somewhat understandable. It’s old school Billy Shakespeare and two fast-talking women stirring up trouble on the stage. Clothes are tossed, hearts are broken, twins are lost.”
Last summer, 15 Villainous Fools was accepted to five fringe theater festivals around the country, including ones in Washington DC and in New York City. To help fund their travels, Atwood received a Micoleau Family Fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts from Bowdoin. A cut from ticket sales and handouts from family members helped, too.
That tour led to rapturous reviews. TimeOut New York wrote: “For this highly modern and clever take on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, the very energetic writers and actors Maggie Seymour and Olivia Atwood (aided by stage manager Axis Fuksman-Kumpa ’17) have condensed the Bard’s farce about two sets of identical twins to an hour, with time for raps, dance breaks, puppets, Nerf guns and a little audience participation. …Shakespearean scholars and novices can both enjoy this riotous showcase for two performers with standout comedic timing.”
Stephen Stout, the artistic director of Peoples Improv Theater (or, for short, The PIT), said he discovered 15 Villainous Fools as he was researching comedic plays from last summer’s New York International Fringe Festival, with an eye toward discovering new talent. He decided the play sounded hysterically entertaining. “It was created by two people who will have more ideas and who I, selfishly, wanted to get on our stage,” he said. “If they’re capable of doing this now, what will they be able to do in five years?” he added.
The inspiration for 15 Villainous Fools began to percolate for Seymour during her study-abroad semester in London, after she saw a production of Comedy of Errors at the Globe Theatre. “I had always liked Shakespeare, but then I saw this production, and I understood every word, I got all the jokes, I was crying for two hours,” she said. “It won me over, and throughout the semester I fell more in love with Shakespeare.”
After she returned to Bowdoin, Seymour met Atwood in an improv class. The two hit it off, and when Seymour asked Atwood if she would “do a weird project” with her the following semester, helping create a two-women adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy, Atwood agreed. “I had no idea what I was signing up for,” Atwood recalled.
Throughout the fall 2015 semester, Atwood and Seymour practiced and improvised, revising Seymour’s original script, shaping the play’s 15 characters, and nailing jokes. It’s a bit of a blur for Atwood. “I don’t know how we came up with the lines and characters and story. It just happened,” she said. For her the experience reflected something she was told by one of her early theater mentors: “We are here to explore the inexplicable mystery of creation.”
Atwood and Seymour first performed 15 Villainous Fools at Bowdoin in November 2015, attracting the attention of a Maine-based theater director who, impressed with their play and performance, asked the two actors to audition for his summer production. That was enough to give them the confidence to apply to fringe festivals and take their play on the road.
They received near universal acclaim (with the exception of just one grumpy audience member, according to Atwood). The reviews also, of course, got the attention of Stephen Stout, who contacted Seymour and Atwood. Initially, though he was encouraging, he did not guarantee them a spot at his theater, according to Seymour.
So Seymour, who is currently an education intern at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company this year, staged a guerrilla tactic of sorts. Last December, she bought tickets for her and her family to see Stout’s own New York City play. After the performance, she “jumped in his face” and said, “Hi! I’m Maggie!”
She explained, “As an actor, one of your main jobs is to pester and be in people’s faces.”
This led to a meeting in NYC this winter with Stout, at which he formally offered Atwood and Seymour a six-week theatrical run this summer. “We were like, umm, maybe…YES! Then we called all of our relatives screaming and crying,” Seymour said.