When it comes to live theater, improvisation is a wild, untamed beast that resists critical cages. I saw that beast in action at the recent performance of Dad’s Garage (the Atlanta-based improv troupe) at Florida Studio Theatre.
Great show. One that got me thinking about what sets improv apart …
Live theater is usually a spectator sport. The actors do their thing on stage. Audiences feast their eyes. A passive role, mostly. To be fair, performers and audiences exist in a feedback loop. Actors feed on applause and wither in the glare of indifference. As Werner Heisenberg (the physicist, not the “Breaking Bad” meth chemist) pointed out: the observer affects the thing observed. In live theater, that only works to a certain degree. There is, after all, a text. “The play’s the thing.” And the play is written down.
Which is another way of saying that, Heisenberg aside, in legit live theater, an audience’s job is passive. Sit down, shut up, watch and occasionally applaud. (And turn off your cell phones.)
None of this applies to the artless art of improv. There’s no text on paper, no lines committed to memory.
The action unfolding on stage is a one-time event. In improv, the actors are the playwrights. They’re making it up as they go along. And getting helpful hints the whole time. From the audience, that is. Not passive at all, this bunch. The improv audience has a real job. They’re helping to create the experience — and loving every minute of it.
Of course, the three actors of the improv troupe were really working it. That’d be Megan Leahy, Tom Rittenhouse and Dan Triandiflou — three high-energy representatives of the Atlanta-based Dad’s Garage, a theatrical, not mechanical, institution.
In one routine, two actors spoke simultaneously as the same character, while the third actor interviewed them. Here, the conjoined actors played a lunatic with an obsessive, almost cult-like devotion to bacon.
They recreated a married couple’s first meeting “in the era of very long hair and very short skirts.” The couple themselves were up on stage to witness — and got to vote on the piece’s accuracy. A honk from a bicycle horn meant wrong. A ding of a bell meant right. More dings than honks, and a lot of laughter.
The trio plunged into a telenovela about the struggles of Mexican farmers to grow celery. (Which one referred to as, “the kryptonite of the unflavored vegetables.”)
They played a heuristic guessing game. The answers being: (A) Disney Land. (B) Doula. (C) Deadly Rubik’s Cube.
The final skit promised “serious theater.” To avoid getting laughs, the actors were threatened with punishment — a mouth-sprayed blast of bottled water. Each actor was issued such a bottle. Needless to say, the troupe was soaking at the end.
Inventive stuff — and a nice gumbo of word play and physical comedy. Leahy, Rittenhouse and Triandiflou can definitely think on their feet. (Or on all fours, like the hilarious scene where Rittenhouse played a pooch.) All the while, the audience whooped, howled, laughed and offered suggestions. The fourth wall was broken. But it was broken from the audience’s side.
It’s an untamed breed of theater, all right. Goofy, silly, apolitical and childish, no doubt. But it still feels like something new.
Slouching to Bethlehem to be born …
Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
Slouching to Sarasota to make folks laugh themselves silly.
And in the process.
Become part of the act.