‘Rooted in truth’: UNC’s Modshakes offer a different theater experience

By Matthew Ng

Trigger Warning: mention of suicide and childhood abuse

“Everyone, please rise for our national anthem,” echoes throughout the Hanes Art Center auditorium at UNC-Chapel Hill.

As an audience begrudgingly stands at attention, Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” suddenly blares from the overhead speakers. A roar of laughter washes over the crowd, which begins to sing with the same conviction that a baseball game might have for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

A first-time guest might be shocked by the sight of people saluting the bikini-clad rapper projected onstage and by the headline “The Modern Shakespeare Society Presents: 30 Dead Queens in 60 British Minutes” on a whiteboard standing stage right. (The late Queen Elizabeth II had passed away just one day earlier.) 

For longtime fans of the theater group The Modern Shakespeare Society, a neo-futurist theater group of UNC students known colloquially as the Modshakes, this brazen display is hardly a departure from the ordinary.

“This type of theater focuses on the tenants of truth and performance that we attempt to recreate with our own artistic visions,” said Mia Lerner, a member of the Modshakes since her freshman year at UNC.

Lerner, who is from High Point, North Carolina, has a traditional theater background and acted in productions throughout high school and college. However, she found herself drawn to the misfit theater group once at UNC. 

“I had heard about the form of theater when in high school and I was looking for a community that would fulfill a need for creativity and friendship,” Lerner said. “I found an incredible community in Modshakes.”

Variety as the standard 

Several times a year, the Modshakes attempt the harrowing task of performing 30 plays in 60 minutes. These short plays are different from what a casual theatergoer might expect. Rather than scripted works of fiction, shows might consist of monologues, slideshows, or silence—anything that the Modshakes can conceive. 

“The Modshakes are a unique performance group that can reach people outside the traditional theater scene,” said Thomas Davids, a senior at UNC and a longtime member of the group. “We offer original and truthful plays based on our lived experiences.”

Lerner, now entering her final year at UNC and as a Modshake, said “For us, each play has a different goal that we hope to achieve. The beauty of this art form is that every two-minute play is telling a story.”

A wide variety of plays is a defining characteristic of a Modshakes show. The spectrum of emotions these plays might evoke can be jarring for some; because of this, the Modshakes include content warnings for potentially traumatic topics on their “menu” of plays. At the troupe’s most recent show, plays ranged from a monologue about suicide to a slideshow inviting the audience to name several of the Modshakes’ sex toys. 

One Modshake performed a piece depicting their childhood abuse, leaving the audience speechless. Not long after, Davids was given a makeshift car boot and stood onstage forbidden from moving for the rest of the night.

Connor Culpepper, a former UNC student, was introduced to the Modshakes by mutual friends and has attended their shows since last year. “I am constantly surprised and amazed at how they can show such creativity within the restrictions that they impose on themselves,” said Culpepper, citing the unpredictability of the shows as a reason for his continued attendance.

Drafting the unexpected

Planning a Modshakes show is as frenzied as the performance itself. 

On the Sunday night of performance week, the Modshakes pitch their shows to one another. As a group, they decide on 30 of their best pitches to arrive at their signature blend of humor and vulnerability. For the next week, the Modshakes gather at Hanes Art Center and spend two hours each night vigorously writing, creating, and rehearsing in anticipation of their Friday or Saturday evening show. 

This rather brief process, which begins and ends in the span of just one week, is unthinkable for most traditional theater groups. For the Modshakes, this short time frame is a deliberate process. 

“It matches the brevity and honesty of what we do,” Lerner said.

Each member of the Modshakes, as well as those who watch their plays, may have their own interpretation of what inspires such a raw, bizarre, and emotional brand of theater.

For Lerner, it is clear where her own inspiration stems from. 

“Modshakes is rooted in truth,” she said. “In place of traditional theater that takes on a character and story, Modshakes and neo-futurism are based around vulnerability and honesty from its performers. This allows for a heightened connection between performer and audience member. It’s short, real, and exciting. It’s different in every way.”

Edited by Ryan Mills and Clay Morris