There’s a certain pleasure to watching death-defying stunts, seeing frankly insane people take huge risks that put their physical well-being in danger. I often think of improv in the same way, substituting fear of heights and death for the even more crippling fear of public speaking.
Improv actors go up to the stage, ask the audience for a prompt, and begin to make up comedic scenes based on audience suggestions. There’s always the risk of the dreaded freeze, where the improvised lines either cease or loop back on themselves, the scene dies, and you can watch as an actor’s ego evaporates into the silence. Some people come for the potential schadenfreude of seeing that freeze, but most come for the other kind of moment: when the audience and performers sync into a moment of perfect timing and thought and you can’t help but break out into leg-thumping laughter.
Fortunately, when Washington Improv Theater (WIT) opened their yearly Seasonal Disorder offering of improv, the audiences were very friendly, lubed by nicely-priced drinks and an eager willingness to participate. The structure of the evening is 3 acts (though the schedule indicates that there are occasionally 4 part evenings), where each act is performed by a different set of actors doing improv of varying styles. One really nice thing about this structure is that depending on which night you attend Seasonal Disorder, you’ll get a different experience with a different troupe. One unfortunate part of that model is that I can only review the troupes that I saw on the night I attended: Country Music All Stars, Season Six, and Improv Actually. Experiences may vary from night to night, but then, since it is improv, they’d vary anyway, right?
The first group, Country Music All Stars, had a neat musical take on improv. Jesse Young and Ryan Schutt play, you guessed it, country musicians that improv the concert talk and songs that one might hear on an unplugged music special. They rely heavily on the audience and less on each other for inspiration, which could be problematic depending on the audience. But this audience was very game for the experience, constantly shouting out ideas and interacting with the performers to create some of the most hilarious moments of the night. Highlights of the night include a skewering of Normal, Illinois (the hometown of a feisty older lady in the audience) and playful songs that flowed well in and out of the comic routine. Young and Schutt played an excellent role in the arc of the evening, warming up the crowd delightfully to set up later acts and creating truly memorable bits that stuck with me long after the night was over. It’s a shame that they aren’t going to make an appearance later in the Seasonal Disorder run.
While the crowd was still pumped from the Country Music All Stars, the much larger ensemble of Season Six needed to take advantage of the momentum with their improv based on a holiday card prompt from the audience. Their work is a bit different than the straight riffing of Country Music All Stars. They begin with two or three person scenes based on the prompt, then tag in when an actor outside of the scene gets an idea to develop the plot. The idea is that the troupe adds layers to the improvised characters that then refer back to previous ideas improvised in the scene created by the prompt. Season Six was by and large successful with that layering, eventually creating a wacky situation involving English relatives enclosing themselves in letters and a child questioning his sexuality at his Little League game.
My main criticism with Season Six has to do with offers. Offers are the building blocks of improv, where one actor makes an action or statement or asks a question that potentially changes the situation of an improvisation. An easy example would be a scene with two actors, one of whom is reading something (all props in improv are imaginary), and the non-reader asks the reader, “Anything interesting in the news today?” This is an offer allowing the reading actor to introduce current events into the play. The reading actor can then counter-offer by introducing an absurd headline or a news item that involves a previously established character.
Season Six’s issue is that offers are too often refused. Taking the previous example, an actor asks “Anything interesting in the news today?” and the other actor replies, “Nope,” then the exchange of offers stops and the scene dies if another offer isn’t forthcoming. There were too many times in Season Six’s show when an offer was refused and other actors had to step in to make a new scene. The problem is the space in between when a scene dies and when it actually ends. When an offer is refused and the scene dies, the dreaded freeze rears its ugly head, so it is a dangerous situation. That isn’t to say that this happens all the time in Season Six’s work, just that it happens too often and they need to anticipate each other a little more quickly. This group has a strong knack for the unexpected, and that sense of creative epiphany is a lovely and rare quality in an improv group.
Closes December 27, 2014
1835 14th Street, NW Washington
1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $12 – $30
The final headlining act, Improv Actually, takes an approach to improv similar to Season Six. They take their inspiration from a single location prompt from the audience combined with a nod to the film Love Actually. Their homage to the star-studded British film is not so much through the borrowing of characters, but the derivation of structure. They create love stories whole cloth and then work to intermingle those stories so that the same characters can be seen in different situations. I’m a fan of this set up for improv, since it lets the actors focus on character creation and not have to worry too much about where the improv is leading them. Their rapport helps them quite a bit, and it is easy to tell that they are familiar with the stock characters that each of them default to.
But the times they really nailed it were when one of the actors made a huge and unexpected offer: one actor suddenly kissing another or the sudden introduction of a gambling addiction. Turns like these pushed the boundaries of the actors and audience, which made for a nice finish on the night. If anything, I just want more of these fantastic and big risks from this troupe and fewer safe stock characters.
Improv Actually definitely knows what they’re doing, and WIT is smart to have them close the night. One of the biggest takeaways from the night was that WIT understands the capabilities and qualities of the improvisers they work with and they are good at setting them up for success. The best part is that as Seasonal Disorder continues, the troupes involved are just going to get better and better as they gel together. The important thing is to know what you’re getting yourself into with WIT. But if you’re looking for an evening of improv, you can’t go wrong with Seasonal Disorder.