Ricky 3’s Hip-Hop Spin On Shakespeare

The director of Ricky 3 in a red hat and green jacket
Ricky 3 director Mikael Burke

INDY Shakespeare Company artistic director Ryan Artzberger admits that fusing Shakespeare with hip-hop is not a completely original idea, pointing to shows such as The Bomb-itty of Errors and the UK’s on-the-nose-named Hip-hop Shakespeare Company. “But all of those are really adaptations,” he says. “I’m interested in the correlation between Shakespeare’s actual text and hip-hop beats.” That interest sparked the development of Ricky 3: A Hip-Hop Shakespeare Richard III, which the ISC will stage July 21–30.

The company has made a home for itself at Riverside Park’s Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre, which recently underwent renovations thanks to a $9.2 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. The amphitheater is part of a larger $120 million Riverside Regional Park Master Plan, which organizers hope will help revitalize the surrounding neighborhood that has seen years of disinvestment. Ricky 3 promises to be one of the higher-profile productions there this summer.

The newly renovated Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre at Riverside Park
The newly renovated Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre at Riverside Park.

“We’re cutting and trimming,” says the play’s director, Mikael Burke, a Butler grad who made a splash in Chicago before returning to direct at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. “But we’re staying as true to Shakespeare as possible.”

At least in the text. “We’re leaning into an Afro-futurist aesthetic,” he says, “creating a world where hip-hop can be an authentic representation of the culture.”

Ricky 3 is a dramatic change for the company, whose shows have been fairly traditional since it started offering free Shakespeare to crowds in 2008. The idea of colliding modern sounds with classic text has been nudging Artzberger for years. He first experimented with the hip-hopification of the Bard while teaching at the IRT’s conservatory, where he guided students through the sonnets by giving them a beat. “It helped them knock down the wall of perception that it’s an old and dusty thing. Putting a rhythm in your body helps you get out of your head.”

But would that work as a full play? A series of conversations exploring those ideas with Burke and other local artists led to Bale Boy Geechie, a producer at CityDumpRecords who became the show’s composer. “I like to think I’m heading toward expertise in theater, but I’m by no means an expert in hip-hop,” says Burke. “Geechie is exactly that. I knew we’d get to learn from one another.”

With all of Shakespeare to choose from, why pick Richard III, the story of one man’s vicious rise to the top of the royalty food chain? For one thing, the creators saw a connection between King Richard’s talent for wielding words and a rapper’s ability to do the same. But they concede that, rather than being the result of a lot of debate, it just felt right. “‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ just makes more sense when you hear it to a beat,” Artzberger says.