Marin Theatre -Leaderboard-May16
You’re accessing a premium article on AmericanTheatre.org. You have premium articles remaining.

Please SUBSCRIBE or LOG IN to access unlimited premium articles.

The cast of Impro Theatre's "L.A. Noir Unscripted"
The cast of Impro Theatre's "L.A. Noir Unscripted"

Impro Raises the Theatrical Bar

How a troupe of L.A.-based improvisers reawakened one critic’s taste for the possibilities of live theatre.

I had been a critic for a year or two before the malaise set in. It’s not that there’s a lack of good theatre; I live in Los Angeles, one of the most productive communities on Earth. But…I was looking for something reliably pure. In the 20-something years I’d been paying attention, I’d noticed a general American trend toward 90-minute realism, much of which was not especially theatrical. While declining attendance and the folding of theatre companies grew more alarming, I saw more staged entertainment that seemed designed not to compete with television and movies but to emulate them. I was looking for a phoenix movement to inspire a resurgence of the medium.

Tony Frankel, my editor at Stage and Cinema, diagnosed my melancholy, and assigned me to cover a local company called Impro Theatre. “Improv?” I protested. “College students in silly hats? Don’t you have a real show for me?”

Click here for our complete special section on longform improv.

Editors being editors, insistence overrode resistance, and no more than dutifully I prepared to go. I gathered that Impro was an “UnScripted” company, and during their residency at the Odyssey Theatre, they were improvising “in the style of” Twilight Zone and Anton Chekhov, in repertory. Twilight Zone, maybe, I thought; good luck with the Chekhov, kids.

As the performers took the stage, the first thing I noticed: They weren’t kids. The ensemble includes folks who worked with giants like Keith Johnstone and Roberta Maguire; some of them had been doing longform work since before I was in high school. I took in their Twilight Zone first, and in two hours, four wholly improvised stories demonstrated a superior understanding of Rod Serling’s stable of kitchen-­sink fantasists. These were serious professional actors, classically trained, who could write on their feet better than many writers can type at a desk. The jokes were funny, the scenarios both original and comfortingly familiar.

Still, my prejudice was not entirely defeated. Twenty-minute sketches were one thing. But how could anyone possibly handle making up a full-length, two-act Chekhovian play? No English-language company had done his actual plays justice, in my experience. American Chekhovs were always serious when they should be funny, dull instead of deep, slick without the surprises of real life. Harrumph.

Well. Three hankies, a busted gut and an altered perspective later, in the lobby I paid the troupe the left-handed compliment that is the common curse of this startling genre: Surely, I wondered, they had decided on storylines and characters beforehand? As he has done for many critics before me, artistic director Dan O’Connor assured me that all their preparation consisted of book-study and improvisational rehearsals. These virtuosic talents simply were as superhuman as they seemed. And that’s hard to believe.

In the years since, I’ve been privileged to watch Impro rehearse and I’ve seen the company perform UnScripted takes on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Stephen Sondheim and John Ford. (They also do Tennessee Williams, Charles Dickens and L.A. noir, among others.) The beloved authors and genres they enrich are both refreshed and irrevocably altered by their touch. It is the most impressive sort of homage—the kind that tells you these improvisers are essentially slumming in some literary neighborhoods (sorry, but Rod Serling never wrote anything as good as Impro’s riffs on his themes).

Above all, Impro’s work has taught me to demand more from the theatre, and from the culture in which it is embedded. The people who would entertain us have got to reward our faith. Trusting Impro to invent a long, inspiriting story has become one of my life’s most reliable enjoyments.

And this is the crux of the movement’s value: Longform improvisation, properly executed, is a feat expanding the definition of human potential. Dilettantes need not apply. Besides character-oriented performance elements like emotional and physical dexterity, a performer must master the theories of intention; the use of space; the function of theme; the purposes of exposition, plot and story. It takes decades to become proficient in this art, which exemplifies the ephemeral, before-your-very-eyes nature of the theatrical experience itself.

Here might be the salvation the theatre seeks. Here is a thing you cannot get anywhere but in person. You cannot see it on any screen, you cannot rewind it, you cannot “share” it in a clip on social media. You can’t even go back and check the script. To be exhilarated in this way, you must attend a live venue in communion with other humans—and attend to the show as it is born, lives and dies.

Jason Rohrer is a theatre and film critic based in Los Angeles.

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    I haven’t seen Impro, but everything you wrote could be said about BATS Improv in San Francisco, and it’s many offshoots, including Improv Playhouse, and the world-touring trio, Three for All (which features Impro’s Steven Kiernan, along with Tim Orr and Rafe Chase, both of whom are also members of Improv Playhouse.)

    There may be nothing as delightful as a full length improvised play when it’s done well. These groups are the cream of the crop. If you’ve never seen them, do yourself a favor and get to a show. You may find yourself instantly addicted!

  • http://melissadinwiddie.com/ Melissa Dinwiddie

    I haven’t seen Impro, but everything you wrote could be said about BATS Improv in San Francisco, and it’s many offshoots, including Improv Playhouse, and the world-touring trio, Three for All (which features Impro’s Steven Kiernan, along with Tim Orr and Rafe Chase, both of whom are also members of Improv Playhouse.)

    There may be nothing as delightful as a full length improvised play when it’s done well. These groups are the cream of the crop. If you’ve never seen them, do yourself a favor and get to a show. You may find yourself instantly addicted!

  • Laura Erb

    There’s nothing I can add to what Jason has written, except to say it’s all true. I am in a completely different geographic spot and space, yet watching this company has had a similar effect on me. My love of theatre has been completely rekindled, only now I want more and more of this specific experience. I want to watch Impro and be delighted by their complete ease and commitment to their story and each other. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We are lucky enough to live in Southern Oregon, near Ashland, so we block out a week each summer when Impro comes to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and we go watch them. Every single show is different, and every single show is amazing. I only wish that we could see them more! One week is not enough! Impro is such a gift. My husband and I are so grateful for the lovely, artistic and thoroughly entertaining adventure this theatre company has brought to our lives.

  • Laura Erb

    There’s nothing I can add to what Jason has written, except to say it’s all true. I am in a completely different geographic spot and space, yet watching this company has had a similar effect on me. My love of theatre has been completely rekindled, only now I want more and more of this specific experience. I want to watch Impro and be delighted by their complete ease and commitment to their story and each other. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We are lucky enough to live in Southern Oregon, near Ashland, so we block out a week each summer when Impro comes to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and we go watch them. Every single show is different, and every single show is amazing. I only wish that we could see them more! One week is not enough! Impro is such a gift. My husband and I are so grateful for the lovely, artistic and thoroughly entertaining adventure this theatre company has brought to our lives.

  • http://www.IMPROVentures.com Milo Shapiro

    I’m so glad Tony Frankel sent you to see Impro Theatre. I, too, write for Tony’s http://www.StageAndCinema.com — from here in San Diego. We are fortunate to have Impro Theatre come near San Diego (North Coast Rep in Solana Beach) about six times a year. A loyal group of improvisers and improv fans black out that night on our calendars to catch a level of improv that is not matched in our town and, I dare say, probably isn’t in Los Angeles either. This group is really a treasure and it’s a pleasure to introduce new people to a style of improv that is not silly and goofy, but still loaded with laughs and good “writing”. I encourage readers to hold you to your word and take a chance on this outstanding blend of drama and creativity; they won’t be let down by your praise.

  • http://www.IMPROVentures.com Milo Shapiro

    I’m so glad Tony Frankel sent you to see Impro Theatre. I, too, write for Tony’s http://www.StageAndCinema.com — from here in San Diego. We are fortunate to have Impro Theatre come near San Diego (North Coast Rep in Solana Beach) about six times a year. A loyal group of improvisers and improv fans black out that night on our calendars to catch a level of improv that is not matched in our town and, I dare say, probably isn’t in Los Angeles either. This group is really a treasure and it’s a pleasure to introduce new people to a style of improv that is not silly and goofy, but still loaded with laughs and good “writing”. I encourage readers to hold you to your word and take a chance on this outstanding blend of drama and creativity; they won’t be let down by your praise.

ARTSEARCH - Billboard 01
close
Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icontwitter follow buttonFollow Us on InstagramFollow Us on Instagram