Many of us left Shakespeare -- along with geometry and physical education -- behind in high school. But class is in session when the Improvised Shakespeare Company, led by Stockdale High grad Blaine Swen, heads back to school Monday for a benefit performance.
But unlike the pained readings of "Hamlet" and "Julius Caesar" in school, the ISC brings its own comedic spin on Shakespeare by creating a unique performance made up on the spot.
"Expect life-changing, mystifying comedy," said Swen, who founded the ISC in 2005.
"We ask the audience to make up a title for a play that has never been written. We then work together to create that play right there. All of the dialogue is said for the first time, the characters are created while the audience watches, and the story is developed spontaneously. We don't plan anything that we're going to do in advance, and nothing has been written."
Swen's early foray into improvisation came through "Mirror, Mirror" shows at Stockdale High School under the guidance of theater instructor CJ Pope.
"I had such a wonderful experience at Stockdale learning from Ms. Pope," Swen said. "She has taught so many students to be kind, generous and confident in their own skin.
"Blaine was part of that company, but I take no credit for his talent and his brilliance," Pope said. "I was just lucky to have such a gifted young man in my program. He is incredibly talented."
Swen's Chicago-based group has made a name for itself in improv comedy, touring around the world and earning critical accolades for the ensemble and its founder.
The troupe received an even greater honor in January, welcoming its first guest performer -- Patrick Stewart, known for his roles on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the "X-Men" films.
Of the surprise guest, Swen said: "One of the best parts was the audience's reaction to the fact that he was there. I've never seen facial expressions like that. ... They were bewildered, surprised and ecstatic all at the same time. It was incredible."
Pope, who had stayed in contact with Swen via social media, said this month's special show came about through great timing as ISC's schedule brings them to California.
"I am a Facebook friend, and he mentioned their tour in California. The dates were all on my performances here at Stockdale. I teased him and said that I would have to cancel my main stage (show) so that I could see his show. He responded by saying, 'How about I come to you?'"
Swen, who graduated from Stockdale in 1996, said he is looking forward to performing in town, something he has not done since moving to Chicago in 2001.
"I thought that this would be a great opportunity to show my gratitude to Ms. Pope while also getting another chance to perform in a place that holds so many fun and special memories for me."
Along with the performance, Swen and his troupe will lead a workshop for Pope's advanced students.
"We often teach workshops while we are on the road," Swen said. "We go over the fundamentals of improv -- listening, support, confidence -- and we give the students tips on how to use and understand Shakespearean language."
Proceeds from the evening performance will benefit Stockdale's theater program. The program is primarily funded by larger performances, such as the Bad Talent Show, which raised $2,400, Pope said.
"We are a self-supported theater," Pope said. "We do not receive money from the principal's budget, district or our ASB. We run like a business: What we earn, we can spend. The money will go into the budget for next year to support our main stage productions -- costumes, sets, lighting, sound, royalties, field trips, scholarships."
Along with performing, Swen said he's looking forward to visiting his hometown, where his parents, extended family and close friends live.
"I miss being near my family. And I grew up in such a terrific community in Bakersfield -- my community at church and at school and at home and in Bakersfield improv, which all overlapped.
"I miss those great people and that wonderful community. I also miss the cake at Jake's Tex-Mex. I miss that a lot."