Having seen very little in the way of dramatic improv in the past, I was very much in the dark as to what to expect when I sat down in the Michael Pilch Studio’s auditorium to see The House of Improv’s new show, Unplanned-ersnatch. On each chair had been placed two slips of paper – we were quickly informed by an enthusiastic cast member that one slip would be used for us to write our own choice of character name, and the other for profession: ‘Bobby, the accountant, for example’ the cast member advises, gently encouraging us to be as outlandish as we liked with our choice of names.
The winning combination would form their play’s main character. My choice of ‘Laura Bramall, the candle-maker’ tragically did not see the light of day in the lucky dip as the actors congregated at the front of the stage, while my friend’s choice of ‘Emily Capon, writer’ was picked as a contender. Having your own name read by the actors of a play is a surreal experience, especially surreal when the actor with your name as their character takes on a convincing New York lilt of a sleazy gangster. The play was off to a riotous start with the introduction of these potential characters, the energy already warm with the buzz of anticipation, my own admittedly laced with some scepticism.
The potential main character that received the most applause was, sadly for Emily Capon the Sleazy New York Writer, was ‘TJ, PhD in molluscs’. Thus, at the insistence of the cast’s emcee, the play began. My aforementioned scepticism was quickly dispelled. TJ immediately established himself as the lonely, misunderstood mollusc-aficionado, with a confidence and eloquence that could easily have convinced me of the existence of a script. Each character that the cast introduced played off the story to varying degrees of effectiveness. A highlight was Mike, owner of ‘Mike’s surf-shop, pre-eminent and only surf-shop in Lincolnshire (or Lancashire)’, who managed to swerve almost every slip up, each one of his scenes promising inevitable laughter from the particularly active audience.
The scenes were satisfyingly long, allowing proper dialogue and plot to unfold without it dwindling into nothing; whenever the scene looked to be in danger, another member of the cast willingly rescued it. The cast exhibited exemplary teamwork in this regard, their strong rapport evident throughout. Despite occasional repetitions of story and on-stage miscommunications, the performance seemed to run seamlessly, the audience even invited to make choices with which to move the story along. The choices were an effective addition to the plot, encouraging the already engaged audience to invest even more in this unique story as it was built before our eyes. An inevitable, and ultimately satisfying love story led the play to its logical conclusion, the final lines spoken by TJ as eloquent and convincing as the monologue with which the play began.
The obvious skill and care taken over The House of Improv’s play has gone a long way in changing the way I, with my (unfounded) doubts about the genre, think about improvisational theatre. There is something magical in the intangibility of the story we, the cast and audience as a team, created last night. The tumultuous tale of TJ, PhD in molluscs, didn’t exist before last night, and will not exist again. Manifest only in the minds of the cast and audience present, the exclusivity of the tale speaks for the unique genre of improv, idiosyncratic in its dynamic brevity. There is no time to stop and consider; it is constantly moving, constantly changing, and its energy is electric.