Theater That Feels Like Theater

The following is a slightly shorter cross-post from my personal blog (www.pimplomat.com) in which I interviewed the director of the Un-Scripted Theater Company's "Act One, Scene Two" festival that I participated in. I've heard from several DCH performers that there is a great interest in longer-form shows, so I figured people may be interested in reading this on Rimshot!, too. Un-Scripted Theater CompanyEntering a world, creating a world, living in a world all made up on the spot is a delicate and powerful position for a person. The world's life is your responsibility. You are both creator and destroyer.

San Francisco's Un-Scripted Theater Company knows this intimately and handles improvisation with the skills of a wizard-like master. Their "Act One, Scene Two" festival pairs the art of improvisation with straight playwriting. Before a performance, the playwright is interviewed on stage and asked questions about themes, characters, props, etc. On stage, the improvisors read and act up to 10 pages of a script pre-written before abandoning it and improvising the rest of the play for up to two hours.

My play, "Meditate," was selected this year to be a part of the festival. I'm glad it was, because it offered me a chance to witness the type of improvisation that I've ached for for a long time. I do like the comedy aspects of improv; however, there's something refreshing to me when scenes and characters are given a chance to expand or deflate, reach out or be reserved. This is difficult to do in a 30-minute montage show. Given enough time, though, improvisors can properly explore relationships between characters in a well-rounded manner that is also pleasurable to performers and audiences.

Mandy Khoshnevisan"We are a company that pays a lot of attention to genre: finding the specific genre of our show, and really trying faithfully to figure out that genre and produce it accurately," said Mandy Koshnevisan, director of the "Act One, Scene Two" festival. "We had been gravitating gradually toward more theatrical genres—producing theater that feels like theater—with our shows Three and Theater: The Musical, where we studied existing playwrights, and that was work we really enjoyed. An earlier incarnation of the group (as the BATS Belfry) had done a baby version of this show (called "By The Book"), during our season planning meeting for the 2011 season, and we decided to try it again—only this time with local playwrights, and full-length plays."

Improvisation is a group mind art. It's up to the performers on stage to figure out what's going on with each added bit of information. Still, most improv groups have coaches, or in the case of Un-Scripted, a director.

"The director is the person who carries the vision of what the end product should look like, and designs the rehearsal process to make sure everyone else can see the vision too, and has the skills needed to get there," Koshnevisan said. "For example, for [the festival] there were some specific things that were very different from what we've often done as a theater company. I wanted it to feel very much like a play—hence, we had costumes, set pieces, real props, and a sound designer playing recorded sounds and music (as opposed to a musical improvisor on a piano, which we often have).

"We also had to train ourselves to improvise differently," she continued. "Because in improv so much is possible, and you're often working with space, improvised shows tend to be more like movies than plays. You can go anywhere in time and space, you can create as many characters as you want, you can solve all your problems. As the director, I had to figure out how to have us improvise in limited space and time, with set characters, and a different kind of story arc, that takes place in emotional space rather than 'plot' space.

The director is the person who sets the parameters for what kind of show it's going to be, and what lies inside the circle of expectations for any given performance, Koshnevisan says.

"I like to think of it as installing a tiny me inside everyone's head, since in the moment, during the show, people are essentially directing themselves—so it helps if their internal director is saying the same things I would say," she said.

As someone used to shorter shows, I was amazed how it all came together over two hours and how the performers landed on themes and elements I would have written into a longer script. The play ended similar to how I would have ended it, too.

"One of the hardest things for us to learn was how to find endings," Koshnevisan said. "At the beginning, when you're learning how to do it, you feel the need to tie up absolutely every single thing with great plot machinations, so the end becomes somewhat confused with everyone needing to tie up every offer in a neat bow, which leads to a lot of talking, and a lot of unnecessary justification.  What we eventually realized is that, the way you make it the end is to see how things have changed and be okay with it.

Meditate Act One Scene TwoFor a lot of performers, long-form improvisation (as defined by Koshnevisan as a single story) is difficult to grasp, or more often, scary.

"I'd say, first of all—just try it. I teach high school improv, and those student actors—some with very little improv or acting experience--managed to learn to do 40- to 60-minute single-story long-forms pretty quickly. I pretty much just threw them at it to see what would happen," Koshnevisan said. "Just like improvised singing, the easiest way to get yourself doing it is just to start doing it. We all consume so much media (movies, TV, plays) that these story structures are kind of ingrained in us already. If you can guess what scene might happen next when you're watching TV or a movie, chances are you're ready to try doing a single-story long-form.

"One thing to keep in mind is that, if you're going to be telling the same story for a long time, you can relax and enjoy the ride a little more," she continued. "In short-form improv, we're taught to establish CROW (or something similar—who/what/where) as fast as possible, so we can move forward. This can lead to incredibly labyrinthine plots. Your story has a lot of breathing room if it's going to be long, so you can take the time to give it color along the way."

And that's what I found satisfying about the two-hour improv set I saw. Much like the actors on stage, I, too, was discovering in the moment. It made me a part of the performance and not just an idle witness. That's true theater, one in which everyone has a role to play.