The BIG 1-0
Baltimore Improv Group, celebrating its 10th anniversary, continues to bravely strip off its improv instincts
Published: January 22, 2014
Act 1 ends with a man holding the two guys who swindled him hostage at gunpoint. He was just trying to get a puppy for his wife. A red puppy. But the two other guys conned him, selling him a stash of firearms instead. Now, out here in Billings, Mont., the conned man confronts the con artists, demanding satisfaction. And it’s all my fault.
It can be all your fault too, if you catch one of the upcoming Unscripted performances staged by the Baltimore Improv Group, a comedy troupe celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. First debuted in 2008, Unscripted is where seasoned comedy improvisers use their skills in a completely different manner. Every performance night, the cast, tech and stage crew, and director—all improvisers—will create a two-act play based on random information obtained from audience members. How that plays out—funny, tragic, dramatic, absurd—happens in the moment, scene to scene. It’s like improv, only not at all. It’s an application of improv performance in entirely different ways.
“I don’t know if it’s like sprinter versus long-distance runner, but your improv muscles are trained to react in a certain way, go in a certain way, follow certain leads,” says Michael Harris, BIG’s artistic/executive director. “In a normal [improv] scene, you’re like God before creation. It’s just the void. So you can create anything you want. You can say you’re going to put the cat in the fireplace. You’re so used to being able to use mime or be able to be anywhere—we’re on the moon. And here, you can’t do that, and it takes a little while to get it out of your system. And I think improvisers in general, when we’re in the improviser mode, it’s not necessary that we go for a cheap joke, but you get used to where the funny is and you want to go to where the funny is immediately, and that’s not always where the rich stuff is, especially for something like this. Here we’re trying to go for what feels emotionally right in the scene.”
If it sounds confusing, watching the cast and crew during a recent rehearsal is almost bizarre. Unscripted requires about 12 BIG improvisers—six performers, two or three stage managers, the lighting tech, the sound tech, and the director—to put the show together, and prior to rehearsal proper they engage in a series of what Unscripted director Prescott Gaylord calls warmup exercises. They stand in a circle and clap in rhythm. One person says a word, the person standing next to them says the word that comes into their mind associated with that word, then the first word that comes into their mind associated with that word, then the first word that comes into their mind associated with that word—and then the next person starts up. After a few times around, the meter quickens and everything speeds up. It’s like an absurdist kindergarten game: Duck, duck, Dada.
After warmup, Gaylord leads the cast through two-character scenes. A pair of improvisers takes the stage. One says something. The other responds. Gaylord occasionally offers direction while watching: Button it (bring the scene to some emotional coda). Altman scene (multiple characters talking at the same time). Keep going with it (keep following whatever you’re talking about). People rotate in and out of two- and three-character situations.
These exercises are designed to get the performers to be able to go wherever a scene needs to. “I have to strip everybody of their improv instincts,” Gaylord says with a laugh during a rehearsal break. “That’s the hardest part, because it’s about hitting the right emotional mark instead of a comedic moment or a plot point. And fatigue becomes a factor, because a typical improv scene might last three or four minutes, and this is a two-act play that might run over an hour.”
How all of the above yields a two-act play felt completely mystifying until Gaylord led the group through a one-act practice run. And to mimic how Unscripted actually plays out, he polled the audience, me, for starting points. He asked for a recent anecdote (I recounted a recent bout of extreme cold-weather apartment woe). He asked what the main emotion I had when this happened (blind rage). He asked for a place in North America that I’ve always wanted to visit (Vancouver). And he finally asked for a title, something “that has nothing to do with anything you just said.” Answer: Red Puppies.
And with that, he proceeded to introduce the evening. “Our play,” he began—as the music tech faded in with the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”—“takes place on the outskirts of Vancouver, cold, cold Vancouver, where at a certain point of the year when it gets dark enough, people fly into blind rage at the littlest thing. These people live in a co-housing unit, they chose to live together, still, they’re just trying to stay friendly, trying not to be mad at the people who live around them, at their family members, at their friends, at their ex, at their friend’s ex, and they’re just working it out. . . .”
Two guys take seats on the stage. Gaylord stands at front stage right, like a sign interpreter. He uses his right hand to cue lights; his left to cue music. From his position he can turn and look off backstage and signal when performers should enter. Scenes end when he signals for music to come up. The first two or three scenes of the night will always be unrelated two-character improvisations that will, over the course of the evening, somehow come together: plot, counterplot.
Over the next half-hour or so, the group threads together a story about a husband who wants to do something for his wife and decides to surprise her by getting her a pet, a very special pet. In the process, he runs afoul of a pair of down-on-their-luck pals who are trying to make some quick money. The wife’s sister needs to move in with them because she lost her job, but she’s happy because she met a really cute guy at the bus stop. And somehow, what at first seemed like a disconnected series of events has become this almost noirish tale about how a man who just wanted to get a red puppy for his wife finds himself armed, livid, and chasing the men who conned him all the way to Montana.
The cohesion the troupe ultimately creates is a testament to their abilities. “The truth is, you’ve got people who have put in time in their craft,” says Harris. “You’re with any organization long enough and you see people when they first start out, and then they go and do this, and you think, I had no idea he could do that. Maybe he’s the one always saying, ‘. . . and then I jacked off.’ And then to see that guy go down a perfectly honest road [in a performance] is just really cool to watch.”
“It’s always fun how surprising [Unscripted plays] can be,” Harris says. “It’s like, ‘Oh my god, it did come together.’”
The Baltimore Improv Group performs Unscripted Jan. 23-25, Jan. 30 and 31, Feb. 1, Feb. 6-8, and Feb. 15 at the Mobtown Theater at 8 p.m. Visit bigimprov.org for more info.
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