The ‘prov is in the Pudding

jacob banigan
by Jacob Banigan
In the year 1680, the Hopi Tribe was living peacefully in the arid, rusty red landscape of the Southwest.
One day as the elders were schooling the youth in the traditional rites and dances celebrating the rare appearance of the “Great White Hunter” in the night sky, the lesson was interrupted by the arrival of a new young man from another tribe. His name was Paco, and his strange ways were immediately intriguing to the Chieftain’s daughter, She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named.
The Hopi Princess was enamoured with Paco, though the two would often rub eachother the wrong way, with their differing religions and difficult accents. Over time she learned much from Paco, new ways to dress and speak, and the true nature of the “Great White Hunter” – the recently dubbed Haley’s Comet.
Paco’s influence was troubling to the traditionally minded Chieftain. This of course made the Princess’ passion for Paco grow.
She did not suspect that Paco was actually a spy sent from the invading Spanish. His mission was to infiltrate the Pueblo and discover the location of the gold that the Spanish Queen so lusted after.
But Paco grew fond of the Princess too, and was distraught when he was commanded to kidnap and ransom her for the tribe’s gold. Despite his protest, the other Conquistadors did kidnap her, and stole away on their swift horses to the Gulf and their ships.
The Chieftain went to the Witchy Woman of the Hills for help, and she provided the rescue party with a magical potion of speed. As the rescue party reached the ship, they did not see that Paco was busy rescuing the Princess himself.
The Chieftain and his wife wound up in the court of the Spanish Queen. Though saddened by the loss of their daughter, they were finally free to honeymoon, and began to tour the sights of Europe. Meanwhile, the young lovers returned to the Pueblo, simply happy to have eachother.
This was the story last night in “Historyonics”, an improv show from English Lovers, played in Vienna, Austria. None of us deliberately decided what the story should be. At the setup of this format we randomly select a century, a decade, and a genre from a mix. This pull gave us “1680” and “Teen Romantic Comedy”. With the help of the audience and a history book, we made a short list of suggestions to draw from: Spain, looms, gowns, horses, Haley’s Comet, Newton, party, nerd, beautiful girl.
After the show, we discussed and argued as to whether this was too much adventure for a Rom-Com, or whether we made too many leaps in the story without playing the simple scenes between plot points. Though we will never play this story again! We hope to learn from our good and bad habits, but tonight we will pull a new combination and launch another feature length original story. I can’t wait.
I love Improv.
When Amanda Equality Campbell asked me to write an essay about Improvisation in honour of World Theatre Day, I immediately began formulating … what, a guide? Explanation? Reverence? A Manifesto? What does Improv MEAN, man? I can dole that out liberally after a beer, but for now I would like to share some of the adventures and joys that I get from stepping on stage with the brave and foolish. Please endeepen them as you will.
I started off this year of shows in a seaside resort near Piombino, Italy, to an audience of 250 improvvisatori. As Rocket Sugar Factory, Jim Libby and I created a story of a young Lord returning to his family’s estate with his virgin bride. By exploring the library and reading from The Book of The Dead she accidentally awakens an ancient evil, and the manor’s Gargoyles come to life. Her secret past emerges, that she is not a virgin, but once lay with a Gargoyle. In the end she transforms into a shrieking half-Gargoyle and rises as Queen of a new Dark Age.
It took about an hour and 20 minutes, a bit long since we were goofing around a little. But Jim and I played all 14 characters, tried not to let any idea get lost, and presented a style of playing that most of the audience had never seen before.
Two weeks later I traveled to London to play in the Annual 50 Hour Improvathon, a soap opera with an enormously talented cast, great musical and tech improvisers and a stupendous director. The show was set in Studio 50, a New York disco in 1977. Since I spent so much time in this setting, experiencing serious sleep deprivation, it became more real to me than London itself, just outside the theatre doors.
(Nearly every time I explain this show to people they say “Wow! Fifteen hours! That’s crazy!” I then clarify, “No, fifty hours.” and their expression drops to a blank look – like I am actually mentally disturbed and might be dangerous to talk to.)
An Improvathon is akin to absorbing a season or two of a TV series in one go. Individual scenes are a joy, episodes are memorable, but the thing as a whole is a monster to wrap your head around.
A highlight from Mark Meer and Ruthie Bratt: a boob-poke that was a little gag in episode two paid off 47 hours later in the perfect romantic epilogue. It’s too much to explain. Millions of moments to remember. Glorious and insane.
February, in Ljubljana, Rocket Sugar Factory played a Sci-Fi tale of a Dystopian city that turns out was actually built on Rock n Roll. Wicked.
English Lovers played a Rat-Pack-Vegas-Crooner style show of improvised songs, in tuxes and with a jazz band. Stupendous.
Each Monday in Graz, we at Theater Im Bahnhof perform an improvised “Everyday Hero” story in German. Ausgezeichnet.
Today I confirmed two trips to Berlin for the upcoming year: one is a gig to entertain business folk; the other a Theatresports Championship. Good times.
In the summer, I return to Edmonton and perform in Gordon’s Big Bald Head. Using the Fringe Festival program, we choose some other show at random and perform a play based on their blurb. Righteous.
Sure, I may be bragging a little, but Improv has afforded me these wonderful opportunities and experiences that I never would have by playing traditional theatre. Just listing them off reminds me how thrilling, unpredictable and challenging it can be. And I hope I never take it for granted.
– one beer later –
Improvising, I can play any type of character I wish, without auditioning and convincing others that I am perfect for the part. I can draw the audience’s attention to a fine detail of the “set” in my imagination, or jump cut to another setting to broaden the scope of our story. Time and space are malleable. If I wish to experiment with the structure of our storytelling, I can explain my idea to my cohorts and immediately test it live, trusting that our collective theatrical instincts will reward every faithful audience member. I can meet a stranger on stage in front of 300 people and create with her a heartbreaking scene that the audience cheers for – before I even know her real name.
I get to see the world and entertain people with limitless combinations of settings, stories and characters.
The Improvisor is at once Writer, Director and Actor. And at times also Choreographer, Songwriter, Dramaturg, Set Designer, Costume Designer, Lighting Director and Audience. Inspiration is transparent, and everyone in the room follows it from first spark to realisation, development and ultimately, payoff.
Yes, Improv can be at times juvenile, frantic and stupid, but not by definition. It is a tool. It allows us a creative arena. In almost every city I visit, there are artists using Improv for the power of awesome. They challenge eachother to premiere genuinely intriguing stories and craft memorable entertainment.
So yeah, thank you Theatre! Thanks Improv! Let’s get up there and give these fine folks a show.

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