Everyone comes early to rehearsal and they play 123 Shakespeare. What that is is there’s one person who starts, and you have to try— its in a field— and the goal is to run away from the field without getting, I guess, eliminated and once you are, you join the eliminators. So it starts with one person. To eliminate them you have to drag them out of the zone of the field, and then they join your team, and you work together to get more people. And then once you have a couple more people, you have to start lifting people up and shouting “123 SHAKESPEARE!” while no part of them touches the ground. And then you have eliminated them. And you’re allowed to do whatever you’re comfortable with to be the last one standing, and that happened before every show.
My informant is one of my friends from high school, and was very involved in our school’s theater department. As he told me, 123 Shakespeare is a ritual game that’s done before the opening of every show, and was one of the most anticipated traditions of our theater department. However, it was also kept secret; only the cast and crew of the show knew about it, not the general rest of the school. It was additionally kept secret from anyone who was participating in a show for the first time. What would happen is that people would be told to come to rehearsal early, “not explaining anything, but [we had] the decency to say ‘bring a change of clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.'” Upperclassmen in the theater department would make up ridiculous rules as a prank, like telling newcomers “No tool boxes allowed,” “Guys, make sure you leave your hoverboards at home!”, and then reveal the actual rules of the game once everyone arrived on the day 123 Shakespeare would be played.
This came up when my informant and I were trying to remember traditions that happened in our theater department during high school. While I was involved in a few shows, my friend had more experience than I did, so I asked him what events he could remember, and he described 123 Shakespeare for the archives.
I remember participating in 123 Shakespeare when I was in high school right before the spring musical, and it went exactly as my informant described it. Looking back on it now and knowing what I know about peer groups and folklore, I thought it was fascinating that this tradition was both a ritual, and a bit of an initiation for people who are getting involved with the theater department for the first time. The upperclassman keeping the secrecy of what 123 Shakespeare is establishes the social hierarchy of the theater department, and the joke of making up nonsensical rules can be viewed as a display of that status, and simultaneously accepting the new members into the peer group by initiating playful behavior with them. Similar to the wedding tradition of pulling pranks on the groom by the bride’s family, I think this game of 123 Shakespeare demonstrates a liminal space that new cast and crew members must cross before they can be fully accepted into the peer group of the theater department. This game stands between the tireless rehearsals and the opening night of the show, so this is the point in which they are invited to participate in a longtime tradition passed down through the generations of the theater department.