If you’ve seen me improvise recently you’ll already likely know that I have a particular interest and passion for musical improvisation. It feels like I’ve constantly been playing with one format or another, often riffing on similar inspirations or striving to solve similar tensions or challenges. I’m currently performing in a format I devised and directed at SAK Comedy Lab called Lights Up: The Improvised Rock Opera, which in many ways builds off prior attempts. (That’s the image above as I don’t have any photos of the show I’m about to discuss.) The first such effort, however, was a rather modest affair during my undergraduate days at Roosevelt University in Chicago. It also happened to be my first real attempt at conceiving, rehearsing and directing a long-form improv show.
As noted in prior blog entries, my initial improv training in New Zealand was in the Theatresports model which was almost exclusively short-form during my time with the company, although I recall that there was always a willingness to let scenes and games have the time they needed and I can remember at least one instance when a musical game ultimately ended up feeling like a small one-act with multiple beats and songs. Although long-form was certainly happening in Chicago, particularly the Harold, my heavy campus rehearsal schedule and commitments as a scholarship holder didn’t allow me to see any, and my performance work with Comedysportz was very much focused on short-form games, as were the two community shows I directed and hosted for Night Players. I had some nontraditional long-form training at Astors’ Beechwood one summer in a living history experience and an Estate-centered murder mystery, but that was about it. I don’t think that I realized how much I didn’t know at the time, thank goodness, and so the possibility of building an improv musical from the ground up didn’t strike as much fear in me as perhaps was warranted.
Roosevelt had a pretty intensive production schedule, but the department was generally pretty amenable to students mounting works if they could find a pocket of time that didn’t conflict with other shows. A friend and talented director, Ed Basden, had done wonders with this model early in my time there, and so I pitched and managed to secure a slot in April 1995, right before my graduation, for a four-performance run of Insta-Musical: Just Add Water in the O’Malley Theatre.
The Basic Premise: A company of ten improvisers craft an original character-driven story based on audience suggestions, utilizing a stock of pre-set song structures to help guide the energy and action.
Looking back, the givens of this production were unique and show the level of “can-do” that the whole company took to the project in spite of our inexperience in this genre. (I was directing a long-form and I hadn’t even been in one or possibly even really seen one!) For starters, we were an improvised musical, but we didn’t have a dedicated musician. Instead we had a smart keyboard (by 1995 standards) several chord progression sheets that I had laboriously constructed in my dorm room with my limited musical knowledge, and luckily a few company members with reasonable piano skills that rotated into the role as they could. A workable solution – just – but certainly not even close to ideal. I also remember that one of our company members, Melanie Esplin, was simultaneously cast in Fefu and Her Friends that was running in tandem with our improv show, so we had an agreement that her character needed to die or leave the world of the play each performance in time for her to make her other call.
It’s perhaps a good thing that I don’t remember a lot from this first effort. I know that we had audiences, but I can’t imagine it was particularly well attended especially considering the size of the venue and the time of year. An element that I do recall, however, is my fascination with song structure and that a desire to maximize musical variety in the show was built into the improv form. Our rehearsal and development process included studying various crafted song structures pulled from my prior observations, imagination, and admittedly limited experience at that point as a musical theatre performer. One frame that still stands out in my memory was a concept I called a “Work Song” which I plan to write about later this week if you want to take a peek inside the structure. This, alongside more expected variations of solos and duets, sought to provide a variety of musical moments for the show.
C. Allen Colwell
Amy Marie Sima
A. J. Wester
According to the rather faded program I found, we also had an opening song that I co-wrote with Amy Marie Sima. I think we used it, in part, to cover an initial brainstorming and casting session that occurred immediately after we obtained our audience suggestions as I have a recollection of huddling around a sheet of paper with appropriate blanks on it for actors’ names. I’ve no idea what this opening song sounded like or said, but I imagine there was at least one target rhyme with “just add water!” This was my first effort at what has become an obsession with starting long-form shows with something innately more polished and theatrical than standing on a bare stage and just getting an audience suggestion. Some efforts have landed better than others.
Projects that have followed have certainly continued this trend of pursuing musical variety and breaking the larger dramatic arc down into discrete musical numbers with specific structural components. As a deviser, my strong preference is for music-driven musicals, where songs carry a lot of the weight of the story-telling and action, and it’s easy for songs to all default into slow ballads if there aren’t strategies in place to nudge the company to the contrary. In addition to this production serving as my first foray into long-form improv, I believe it was also Roosevelt’s first such offering (unquestionably its first improv musical at the very least) and this would also become a trend in my future work: often I am pitching projects to companies where this kind of work is something completely new to the producers and their audiences.
Some of the simpler but greater lessons of this experience, at least for me, were to just dive in and do it. In general this has been at the core of my devising philosophy: if I know I can easily achieve the desired result, why bother?! I surrounded myself with a company that was game for the experiment and that trusted me enough to lead the expedition.
When I’m able, I’ll include cast lists as I’ve done in the column above, as it’s nice to remember all of the people connected by these improv escapades. If any cast members are reading this, I’d be fascinated to hear some of your memories and what you took away from the project as my memories are now rather faint! Feel free to drop a line here or email me.