Oct. 26, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman
Impro Theatre founder Dan O'Connor explains how he and 17 other actors go on stage every night not knowing what role they will play or what they're going to say
If you think acting is challenging work, try improvisation. An actor walks out on stage with no idea of what she or her fellow performers are going to say or do. An audience member suggests a storyline. Then, together, the troupe must invent characters, dialogue, a plot!
Impro Theatre's "Sondheim Unscripted"
It’s a high-wire act, not for the faint of heart. Not every actor is capable of doing it. The ones who do it expertly have found a home at Impro Theater. The 19-year-old company creates full-length improvised plays with a twist. Each one follows the style of a famous writer – Jane Austen, Chekov, Dickens – or literary genre – Westerns, film noir, fairytales.
Last month at The Broad Stage, Impro Theatre presented a completely improvised musical in the style of Stephen Sondheim.
This weekend the group returns to The Broad in Santa Monica for the second set of performances in a yearlong residency there. Just in time for Halloween, Horror Unscripted promises a chilling evening of murder, ghosts, possession, mayhem, and, above, all laughs.
I spoke with Impro Theatre’s founder and artistic director, Dan O’Connor, about how the group prepares.
DAN O’CONNOR: We do our due diligence. We research. We read. With Jane Austen there’s a certain world that it takes place in. With Sondheim, because he chooses to collaborate with different people, he’s telling different stories. This is the fourth production we have of Sondheim Unscripted. Each time we go to it, we try to dig a little deeper.
We’re also blessed in having two musicians we work with, Peter Smith and Matt Cohen, who really have done their work on the musical side, so that when we’re improvising we’re quoting musical structures that are Sondheim-esq, and the same thing with the lyrics that we’re improvising live on the spot. We have to do a lot of research.
It’s like playing jazz. You practice your scales and when you go to the club you improvise. You just play and let the music take you where it goes.
Improv is "like the circus, theater, jazz all combined."
BRUCE FELDMAN: Does everyone perform in every style on every evening?
DO: Some people don’t do musicals. Some don’t do Shakespeare. We have a company of 18. Some are terrific musical improvisers. Some are terrific at Shakespeare. We do however have everyone come to every rehearsal. If someone wants to do it, they’ve learned what we’ve learned.
BF: So, how do you rehearse to do an improve evening?
DO: We had a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago where we just worked on building the refrain. It’s a really interesting challenge because when you improvise. you don’t want to think about where the song is going, yet at the same time you need to know the structure of a well made Sondheim song.
We also worked on rhythm at the rehearsal before that. When we first started doing this we played around a lot with counterpoint, the idea that the pianist is laying down a particular type of song and the first person who sings follows that, but the second person may vary it. You have a person following the notes rigidly and another who’s not, and a third who’s somewhere in between.
We had one rehearsal just about allowing yourself to be lead by the musician. We had another rehearsal where we worked on leading the musician. With Sondheim, we drill down to the emotion of whatever the theme of the song is.
"Jane Austen Unscripted"
BRF: How did you arrive at wanting to do Sondheim?
DO: We are all [professional] actors who have done a lot of work. Some of us have worked in musical theater a good deal. The challenge of doing it was exciting. We had all done short Sondheim songs in improv evenings. We were excited about what if we got to do this as a full length musical. We have some very talented singers who are able to create a song on the fly. It’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of like the circus, theater, jazz all combined.
BRF: Are there specific Sondheim songs you focus on when you rehearse?
DO: Sure. Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George. Also, Merrily We Roll Along and A Little Night Music. The amazing thing, what’s so much fun to watch, is [one night] we’re going to do something that’s like this, [then] we’re going to do something completely opposite. Every night is completely different. We want the actors to follow the story and let the story dictate what happens next. It’s exciting to watch.
BRF: Performing improve must be terrifying!
DO: Yes, but wonderfully terrifying. There’s terror, but also the exhilaration of creating something in the moment. We really enjoy it. We’re still finding new ways of doing things. That exhilaration is there for audiences, too. People come back night after night because they know it’s going to be different.
BRF: You rely on your fellow actors. If you get stymied, your fellows actors will help you. It’s like a high wire act. If you screw up, they’re there to catch you.
DO: Yes! Our motto is, make your partner look good. I’m letting go of my ego and trying to help them. The level of trust…if I come up dry, there’s five others on stage to help.
Impro's "L.A. Noir Unscripted"
BRF: When you do a show in a particular style, is it 100% different every time?
DO: We want to maintain the integrity that every show is different… We try not to go to our trick bag. We want everybody to be completely new every night. Not only because our audience is seeing us multiple times, but it keeps us in the moment as performers.
BRF: Has Sondheim seen your show?
DO: No. I would love for him to see it. If Jane Austen had come to see us perform a novel she had not written, we would want her to recognize the world and how we’re taking good care of her literary legacy. Same with Sondheim. If he showed up we would want him to see how we were inspired by him.
Hugh Laurie and [British comedian] Stephen Fry came to see Jane Austen. We learned Fry’s specialty at Cambridge was Jane Austen. The only note we got from him was that she would not reference her grandmother’s pianoforte because they didn’t exist in that time.
Impro Theatre's shows at The Broad Stage include Horror Unscripted, Oct. 27-29, L.A. Noir, Nov. 10, and Chekhov Unscripted, Feb. 23, www.thebroadstage.org, (310) 434-3200