The Bard

Shakespeare Comes to Hulu with ‘Complete Works’

Inside the comedy webseries ‘Complete Works.’

Oli Scarff/Getty

Just because some people think iambic pentameter is a nightmare doesn’t mean that Shakespeare is all bad. Just watch the Hulu series Complete Works, which premiered on the Bard’s 450th birthday in April.

The comedy miniseries produced, directed by, and starring Joe Sofranko is inspired by the National Shakespeare Competition. (Sofranko won ten years ago.)

Complete Works is about Hal, a naive Shakespeare enthusiast who gets more than he bargained for when he is selected to participate in the American Shakespeare Competition. Unfortunately, his cheerful disposition only gets him so far. Everyone else is better prepared than he is for the reality of how difficult the competition really is.

The quirky web series is five 30-minute episodes long. Complete Works shows modern audiences that the Bard is still appealing. Sofranko chatted with The Daily Beast about his indie project, Shakespeare’s modern relevancy, and, of course, fangirled over Kenneth Branagh.

When you were first introduced to Shakespeare, what was that like for you?

Performing Shakespeare would be when I was in seventh grade cast as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I just had a blast. I owe major credit to my theatre teacher; if it wasn’t for him, it may have been just boring or confusing. But he made it fun and funny. I remember having so much fun doing the Pyramus and Thisbe play.

And reading? My English teacher in eighth grade. We had a free assignment or something, it was a “read anything you want” kind of assignment and do a report on it or whatever. I remember being like, “I want to do Shakespeare,” and she suggested Macbeth.

So, what exactly inspired you to create the web series?

So Lili [his girlfriend who also plays Pauline in the show] and I were looking for something to inspire us, and give ourselves that creative outlet. We were like, what if we did a show about the Shakespeare competition? We were curious about when you go to these arts competitions there’s this sense of fun and freedom and it’s kind of like camp where you’re meeting all of these people, away from home. Underneath that, there’s this little underlying tension. At the end of the Shakespeare competition, you know somebody is gonna lose. It’s sort of unspoken.

In the teasers and trailers, they’re like, “It’s so dramatic.” And it’s poking fun at how much they think it is dramatic. It’s actually a Shakespeare competition. That’s one of the reasons we don’t spend a lot of time talking about what’s happening behind the scenes with the judges. We didn’t want it to be like a reality show. In the actual competition, you don’t know what the judges are thinking. You don’t know what they are grading you on at all. They’re always just kind of watching. It’s mostly tension coming from the competitors minds themselves and the insecurities, the fears, anxieties.

How similar are you to Hal?

I was definitely naive, I think the main similarity between me and Hal is that we were naive. I’m a little less naive now. I am pretty happy-go-lucky in general, so that is also a similarity. I’m a little less socially awkward, at least I like to think so, than Hal. We’re both extremely passionate about Shakespeare. But the story that Hal goes through in the show is totally 100 percent different than what I've experienced. Everything in the show is totally fake. I didn’t have any interference behind the scene with the proctor of the competition coaching me.

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Is it more important to act Shakespeare as opposed to reading it in class?

Absolutely, it’s got to be acted out. Reading Shakespeare is what the actors and the directors have to do in order to understand it. It would be like asking you to read out my screenplay to Complete Works. It’s not going to be as good. It’s meant to be seen, to be felt, to be heard, laughed at, cried over. It’s meant to move people and excite people and make people think. It does happen when you read it, but you’re missing the energy of the actors with the interpretation of the director and the setting.

What were the challenges of making a show about Shakespeare for a modern audience?

It’s not easy. I wrote it with Adam North, and we co-directed together as well. There’s a couple things we always talked about. One, we never wanted to just include passages of Shakespeare or people performing Shakespeare. We always wanted to make sure there was a plot or story, characters, motivated reasons for seeing a specific passage of Shakespeare. It serves a purpose of not boring the audience, because they’re definitely going to at it as a tangent. Like, someone would be reciting King Lear for two minutes and they would be like, what’s the point?

We also didn’t want the Shakespeare references to be too blue. Adam and I never wanted to dumb it down. I can’t stand when they do that in some commercial stuff on network television. It is a show about Shakespeare, let’s embrace it wholeheartedly. Let’s play it to the highest level of intelligence. We didn’t say, “Let’s only reference Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet, or Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because those are the ones that everyone knows. We wanted to just be true to what we thought made sense.

What was the hardest part of everything and pulling it all together?

We didn’t have limited time, but we definitely had a limited budget. It was all independently produced. In the beginning, we didn’t know we were going to be on Hulu and we were just making something that we liked and we’re proud of. In the indie world, in order to do something that you’re proud of and you think is good, it requires a lot of patience and perseverance.

The hardest of the whole thing was probably shooting the whole thing in 20 days, which was pretty ambitious considering it was my first time directing. When we finished shooting, I had a hard time sleeping because my adrenaline was high from the previous month. My body was in overdrive.

What is your favorite part of doing the show?

One of my favorite memories was directing the young Hal and young Taylor (the girl he’s reading the little Macbeth to). It’s very short in the first scene of the first episode. He’s flashing through his life, but that scene was so magical! I love both those actors, and for some reason it reminded me of myself being inspired as a young age.

Is there a Season 2 in the works?

We don’t have any immediate plans to do a Season 2 of Complete Works, but if that came up, if there was enough audience demand for it or Hulu wanted to get behind it, we would definitely be open to that.

I have to know, who is your favorite Shakespearean actor?

I love Kenneth Branagh, he’s the bomb. I really hope that Kenneth Branagh watches our show. It would be a dream. Have you seen Laurence Fishburne in Othello? He was incredible in that! But definitely Kenneth Branagh.