Friday, March 28, 2008

Rehearsal #2: Banter

Wednesday night we worked on how to make dialogue sound less like improvised dialogue and more like written dialogue. Oddly, improv dialogue generally sounds more natural, and in order to make dialogue sound playwritten you have to make it sound unnatural. Because apparently very few playwrights actually write like people talk.

Christian and I improvised a scene about two people meeting at a bench in the park. Then we did it again with the requirement that we speak in complete sentences. Suddenly we were in Zoo Story.

Eventually we attempted to make it sound like banter. As we worked on it throughout the night we discovered the key, in many ways, is to ignore the improv tenant of “Yes And”. Your character has one thing on his mind and that’s all you talk about regardless of what the other person is saying. You still have to listen, so you know when to speak, but what you say doesn’t necessarily follow from what the other person just said. It’s a logical train of thought for you and your character, but the dialogue might sound like a non-sequitor.

This is harder than it sounds, especially after years of improv training, but works very well. I guess people are generally wrapped up in their own world most of the time and playwrights take that fact and exaggerate it for comedic effect. We don’t do it in improv because it’s so much extra work. You have to come up with your own stuff rather than building on what the other person just said.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rehearsal #1: Theatre the Musical

We had our first rehearsal last night for Theatre the Musical. The premise of the show is simple: Take a playwright and improvise a show in the style of that playwright… only as a musical. We’ll play everything straight and the comedy will come from the juxtaposition. I mean, lets face it, Ibsen or Becket as a musical is comedy enough right there, let alone the untapped melodic potential of Mamet, Wasserstein, Albee, Miller… need I go on?

Last night we started by getting to know each other a bit. We have three people in the show who’ve never been in one of our shows before, and one understudy who is completely new as well. In fact the understudy has no improv experience at all, but has opera experience. Between rehearsals, my intro class, and Christian’s Thursday night class, we hope to have her up to speed to perform in at least a couple of shows by May. Otherwise, we’ll just enjoy having her voice around.

Then we worked on various status and style matching exercises. Style matching is one of the cornerstones of Un-Scripted’s improv philosophy. If you can style match, you can play any genre, even ones you know nothing about, as long as one cast member does. You just style match the person who knows what they’re doing. This allowed us to do a Brecht long form that drew a standing ovation when only a couple cast members knew anything about Brecht.

Then we closed by working on some improvised Mamet. The newbies leapt into it pretty well, though I noticed a tendency to rush and add more information than was necessary. Christian, our fearless director, isn’t so good at improvising Mamet, largely because he’s not a big fan of the playwright in general. He did quite good though.

I have no nugget of blinding incite to give you all from this first rehearsal. As we move forward, I’m sure epiphanies will follow. In the meantime, you have 2 weeks left to see our current show: Three (also designed to be more like a modern play than a traditional improv show.)

(photo: Brecht)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Let Theatre The Musical Snow

I attended auditions Monday night for Un-Scripted’s next show: Theatre, The Musical. Christian’s directing the show and he was having problems solidifying his concept for the show. Brainstorming with Mandy and I before the auditions started we hit upon some ways that the show can borrow from Let It Snow in terms of how suggestions are gathered.

The basic idea for the show is to get a suggestion for a playwright from the audience and then perform a musical that playwright might have written had they ever written musicals. It’s essentially a way to do a genre combo show, we’re just limiting the genre’s to Playwright, and Musical.

The problem is, how do you get a playwright? If I’m in the audience and am not familiar with the chosen playwright, will I enjoy the show? What if the performers don’t know the playwright?

Well, in Let It Snow, only one person from the audience was from the town, but the whole audience enjoyed it. The performers certain weren’t from the town either. So the answer is to ask for playwrights the audience likes and is familiar with and then interview them to find out what that playwright means to them. Then we bring their version of that playwright to life.

And it snows at the end.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Jukebox Stories

Tara and I went to see Impact Theatre’s Jukebox Stories last Friday night at La Val’s in Berkeley. The show left us both tingling with an inspired feeling that only a good night of theater can induce. We immediately began asking ourselves “how do we improvise this?”

The show has no fourth wall. Prince Gomalvilas tells stories and Brandon Patton sings songs. While certain pieces are performed each night, the others change every performance based on requests and random audience input. In many ways the show felt more like a concert than a play, but that’s not surprising given that one of Prince’s inspirations for creating the show came from a Green Day concert, which he describes as one of the most amazing theatrical experiences he’s ever seen.

While none of the show is specifically improvised, it’s not overly scripted either. They interact with each other and the audience naturally, and Prince takes no care to hide the fact that he reads most of the monologues off cheat sheets. They play trivia games with the audience and effortlessly shape the show around the feedback they’re getting from the crowd. Perhaps more importantly, they look like they’re having a great time. By the end of the evening (which flew by) I felt as though I had just hung out with them in their home for a couple hours.

In many ways, they’ve taken key elements from improv and applied them to theater:
Look like you’re having a good time.
Interact with the audience.
Listen to the audience and tailor the show to their tastes.

The trick with improvising this format is that for these two performers each monologue or song is an old friend they get to relax comfortably into performing whichever one is chosen. It’s hard to improvise a monologue or song as if it were an old friend. It’s not impossible, but the improvisor needs to be exceedingly comfortable and confident in their ability to sing a song or tell a story on the spot.

But Jukebox Stories felt more personal than your average improv show, largely because the stories and songs were more personal and revealing. To really improvise this format, we would have to tell real stories about our lives, in which case is it really improvised?

As it’s not exactly scripted either, it would fall under our jurisdiction as the Un-Scripted Theater Company, but I’m left feeling this is probably the direction live theater should be exploring: combining scripted theater with improv and song. Maybe the question isn’t “how do we improvise this?” but rather “how do we do this type of show ourselves?”

Jukebox Stories runs through March 22nd. Visit for ticket info.

Our own production, Three, opens this weekend!