Last year, on a stage in Amsterdam, I broke up with my lover and broke her heart.
As I exited the stage, self-conscious and weeping, the rest of the cast swarmed around Nardje and gathered her up in a group hug. The lights dimmed, the group moved apart and two characters in a happy relationship took the stage. Someone made a joke. The audience broke the tension with laughter and the show went on.
In the wings, on opposite sides of the stage, Nardje and I waved at each other. You okay? I’m okay! We mouthed. We smiled. Thumbs-up. Tears wiped, ready to head back on stage and take a bow.
The show I’d just performed was Ghosts of Love, an unscripted performance featured in the Impro Amsterdam International Spontaneous Theatre Festival.
The cast – my fellow players were from the USA, France, the Netherlands – met and workshopped with a Dutch director for three hours the day before the show. We learned a structure but no scripts. We were to play four couples, tasked with revealing contrasting stories of different relationships. We got comfortable touching each other, holding hands and being close. Then boom! Showtime.
Back stage afterwards, teary audience members came up to hug us – even scold us.
“That was too real!”
As a performer better known for my broad characters, comedic timing and quick wit, Ghosts of Love was one of the most memorable shows of my career. When I got back to Sydney, I was inspired to ask Cale Bain, then the Artistic Director of Improv Theatre Sydney, if we could put on something dramatic as part of the Fringe. A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie started from that desire.
Creating moments of real emotion on stage is a natural part of improvised theatre.
These moments are hiding in plain sight in the array of Theatresports and Comedy Festival Shows, Downton Abbey parodies and late night bar gigs. Saturday Night Live and Whose Line is it Anyway fans converge in schools and stages around Australia to learn and perform, but eventually the scenes that really get the audience are the truthful ones – those in which the performers drop their guards and allow some vulnerability to surface.
It’s easier said than done. Improvisers have to learn that it is okay to be real, quiet and emotional on stage. Second City in New York actually runs a class called That’s Not Funny.
In Melbourne as a beginner I took part in specific intimacy workshops where we practiced touching, kissing (no tongues) and expressing our feelings. It’s all just pretend, but it’s so much easier being a pirate, robot or a smart mouthed shop assistant than a girl standing in front of a guy asking him to love her.
The reason I’m committed to improvising plays is I have the scope to play a character for longer than five minutes. I can dress up in costume.
With my fellow players, we can create the script in real time using the conventions of whichever narrative style we choose like Tennessee Williams, Chekov, Shakespeare or Sondheim to guide us away from comedic chaos and into something truthful, still funny but wholly satisfying.
Keith Johnstone, author of Impro for Storytellers wrote: “It’s weird to wake up knowing you’ll be onstage in 12 hours and that there’s nothing you can do to ensure success”
A Streetcar Named Hot Tin Menagerie plays from September 26-29