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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Jun. 22, 2020 2 weeks ago

Florida Studio Theatre rolls out distance-conscious improv show

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The “Triple Play” show debuted June 19.
by: Harry Sayer Staff Writer

Will Luera has been a professional improv performer for 23 years — it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about the craft. 

And in those 23 years, the most recent five years spent as Director of Improvisation at the Florida Studio Theatre, he has become accustomed to certain constants when performing in front of crowds. The way audience members push and pull with the performers, offering suggestions for a scene and how the performers respond in kind. Sometimes the scene can become comedic, or horror-tinged, or can have a Tarantino or Shakespeare feel to it, each with its own energy and rhythm. 

But like many things in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, those rhythms have changed. Luera and his other performers are getting used to a new kind of improv show, one that takes health and distance into account. 

The FST Improv troupe’s new “Triple Play” production debuted live June 19 at the Bowne’s Lab Theatre and is set to run each Friday and Saturday night. 

Managing Director Rebecca Hopkins said the two-act comedy production was comparatively easy for the theater to put together, given its small cast size of full-time company members. Luera and performers Sarah Durham and Kyle Van Frank compose this particular show. The cast conducted some one-act trial runs of the show in early June, but the 19th marked the first time it debuted with its two-act structure. 

“We can't bring actors in from New York, we can't go into that full-fledged rehearsal with props and sets and all the good collaboration people it takes to put on a major production,” Hopkins said. “We're not there yet as a society to be able to do that type of work in a controlled way. That's the advantage of improv ... it is one of the more malleable art forms.”

The new show is a variation on the six other shows that run throughout the year at FST. Luera says he combed through around 60 improv games — themed scenarios that the performers build off and act out onstage — before picking 13 that fit well with the reduced audience size. 

The theater’s typical improv show has about six performers, but Triple Play pairs it down to three — the titles stems from the three-person cast. That smaller number radically shifts the flow in the room, not to mention how much each performer gives.

“When you have a six-person cast, I could cast a musical person, I could cast a physical person, a verbal person, etc,” Luera said. “When you're doing a two- or three-person cast, you don't have that luxury so we pretty much have to do all of it.”

Luero and his staff had to deprogram their usual methods of performing with one another. An interesting challenge, and opportunity, was the need to rework their movements on stage to not only keep their distance, but to keep the scenes dynamic.  

“We have to learn how to sort of mute our intuition so we can move towards each other,” Luera said. “You'll see that there's certain marks on the stage that helped us identify the lanes that we’re supposed to be in … We started to see that our scenes are very static, like we were never leaving our lanes with a very boring stage picture. And so we just worked on ways to go from stage left to right, or vice versa, and still maintain about a six-foot distance from one another.”

A typical FST show can have up to 105 people in the crowd, but the Triple Play productions will only have around 30. Each audience table is, as expected, six feet apart at the least. What audiences so far have lacked in volume have made up in enthusiasm — Hopkins says it’s been an engaged crowd. 

“We were nervous all of us getting on stage, that it wouldn't work,” Hopkins said. “Would the audience be afraid? Improv is dependent upon audience interaction, would they be afraid to interact with us? Would it just be too dark? Is 30 people even enough to do a good job? Because it is so interactive.”

Hopkins and staff look at the smaller show as the theater dipping its figurative toes in the water as staff figure out what to do for future productions. She hopes they’ll come sooner rather than later.

"Live theater is a different experience,” Hopkins said. “And I'd got reminded of it the second I hit the stage. Oh, this is what's important about this. It is the relationship with the audience.”

The Triple Play show will be announced two weeks out as the theatre keeps tabs on COVID cases in the Sarasota community. You can find out more here.floridastudiotheatre.org.

Harry Sayer is the Black Tie Reporter for the Observer. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and previously worked the Black Tie beat for the Observer newspaper in Winter Park and Maitland. You can catch him at one of Sarasota's fundraisers and shindigs. 

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