The story goes something like this: A production designer at Walt Disney Imagineering sees a colleague wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the title of a play he's somewhat familiar with, The Complete Works of Wm Shkspr (Abridged).
When he humbly queries the wearer, he gets to hear how absolutely terrific the show is, how it's been performed all around the world, how it's currently the longest-running hit in London's West End, and how this guy‹an actor, naturally‹would love to be in this fabulous vehicle, which condenses all 37 of Shakespeare's plays into a comic, manic, no-holds-barred 97 minutes, performed by three actors.
"Have you heard of it?" the guy asks the production designer when he sees a hint of recognition in his eyes.
"Yeah," answers Daniel Singer, "I'm one of the creators."
Singer laughed as he related this tale, the genesis of the current production that opened last weekend at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, which Singer directs. What better start for his working relationship with actor/producer Robert L. Williams, who stars in the current production (along with co-producer Sean Galuszka and Harris Dorman). "He was worshipping at my feet for a while after that!" Singer recalled.
Then, Singer related a much bigger story, the genesis of The Complete Works itself (which is an actual scripted play, available from Broadway Play Publishing, and also published in a non-acting version by Applause) and the company which gave birth to it, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, or R.S.C. (which today has branches in North American and the U.K.).
In 1981, Singer teamed up with actors Jess Winfield and Adam Long to perform at Renaissance Pleasure Faires. "We were three guys who really hated our acting careers, and did everything we had to not have careers‹it used to drive my agent crazy, because I wouldn't shave my beard," said Singer. "The Renaissance Faire was our life and our livelihood, and we were looking around at the [performers there] and saying we could do so much better." Singer formed the R.S.C., and the trio's half-hour versions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet soon earned them cult status. ("We were The Rocky Horror Show of the Faire," quipped Singer.)
After honing their skills and instincts (with a little help from the Bard) for more than six years, Singer, Winfield, and Long decided to take on the whole canon in The Complete Works of Wm Shkspr (Abridged).
"We had rejected the whole acting business, and created the show for ourselves and made the show a reflection of who we were," said Singer. "We just wrote it as an expression, and this kind of an angst response to our careers turned out to be this play with legs!"
So in 1987, the boys took their ambitious, irreverent, athletic farce to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. "I had a lot of faith in it as a theatre piece," Singer stated. But, surrounded by the many, many performances at the jam-packed Festival, he admitted, "We were terrified that we could get ignored. And we had one of the worst time slots, 10:30 a.m.
"But the word got out, and by the third day, the rest of the three-week run was sold out. So right away we knew..."
What followed for Singer, Long, and Winfield was two years of touring worldwide along a route paved by the "new vaudeville" of the Flying Karamazov Brothers and other alternative troupes. "The show didn't fit into any one category," Singer said of the loose evening that was driven by the charisma and personalities of the trio, "so we performed at comedy festivals, colleges‹any place that was a venue that would take us."
And along the way, he said, "We found ways to make the book really tight wherever we did it. We worked out the bugs for so long on the road that it's a got a really strong structure. The script is really universal."
Still, after a couple of years, Singer felt the need to shift gears and stop performing. He wanted to find a replacement. "I had to convince Adam and Jess that it was OK. [But] I had a lot of confidence in the show and the text and knew that it would survive [any of] us leaving."
Singer seems to have been right, and then some. Since his departure in 1989, the show and the company (both branches) have become two separate entities. Complete Works has enjoyed independent productions Off-Broadway (directed by Winfield, who himself retired from performing in 1992), internationally (a production in Hungary ran for over a year), and on London's West End. (The smash R.S.C. production there, now in its fourth year, is directed by and stars original company member Adam Long.) "For 18 years, Adam has been putting on those old wigs and skirts and running around screaming," Singer laughed. "In August, I saw him and he was just as wonderful as ever."
Meanwhile, the North American branch of the R.S.C. (headed by the actors who originally replaced Singer and Winfield) has created and found success with other monumental theatrical condensations such as The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) and Complete History of America (Abridged), as well as an upcoming venture, The Millennium Musical.
Two years ago, the amateur rights to Complete Works were released. "Now, it's in every school and drama club everywhere," Singer said enthusiastically. "That tells me that the show will probably be around for a couple of decades, and I couldn't be more pleased."
Of course, he had to call in a favor to get the professional rights here in L.A.: "I told them I knew the playwright," he deadpaned, "and they said, "No problem.'"
But this time around Singer's thrilled to be in the director's chair. He can't say enough nice things about his three actors, whose input he's making the most of. "It's such a relief for me to be working fresh, putting some new stuff in the production," said Singer.
"I'm amazed," sighed Singer, off to rehearsal. "Here was this little dorky idea I had at the Renaissance Faire, and it's sort of spawned all of this..."