In hindsight, this was a match made in heaven — or at least Camelot.
The Minnesota Sky Vault Theatre Company, a recently formed branch of Rochester’s Words Players Theatre, performs highly improved, often irreverent versions of Shakespeare’s plays. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival seeks just such performers.
So, the nine members of Sky Vault, ages 16 to 23, this summer entered what is for them a brave new world, performing every day of the seven-weekend festival in Shakopee.
“It’s one of the best experiences we’ve had in a while,” said Words Players Director Daved Driscoll.
A typical day goes this way: The troupe performs four stage shows — usually 10:45 a.m., 12:30, 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. — on the Witchwood Stage. In between those acts, the actors take to the streets of the festival grounds or are beckoned to other stages for impromptu performances with other groups.
“It’s been terrific to join in with those seasoned professionals,” Driscoll said, setting aside for a moment the fact that Sky Vault’s members are well-seasoned themselves: “The newbie in the group has eight years experience,” he said.
A Sky Vault performance may see a “big, hefty guy” pulled from the audience to stand in as Queen of the Fairies, turn tragedies completely inside out (“Our ‘Hamlet’ is, of course, a funny version of ‘Hamlet,’ Driscoll said), and set Shakespeare to music that “doesn’t sound like bad 1960s folk songs.” Performers lug guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and flutes around. “Most of the actors have at least two instruments slung on their backs,” he said.
The reception they have received has been gushing (“It almost gets embarrassing sometimes,” Driscoll said), and best of all, it appears to be leading to more work. Sky Vault has been invited to Renaissance festivals as distant as Texas, and Driscoll, with a pocket full of business cards from new contacts, may embark on a barnstorming tour across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We don’t know how that will play out, but it’s exciting to have people who want us to perform,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll say yes to all of them, but we’re excited for the chances.”
The Sky Vault troupe, formed from the ashes of last year’s near-shutdown of Words Players, is a for-profit arm of the theater company. Its members are paid for their performances, and the extra money goes back to the theater.
The regional interest in them suggests a revival of an age a century or longer ago, when traveling troupes went from town to town.
“It’s a very important business trend in the theater world, and we’re right in the middle of it,” Driscoll said. “Taking professional-level theater to wherever we can find an audience.”