During the end of my my second year of teaching in Orlando (2005), I made my first effort at producing and directing a long-form improv show for the Orlando International Fringe Festival. As is my wont, I jumped into these new waters with probably much less information than I should have had, but was fortunate to have some knowledgeable collaborators at my side, including Stacy Norwood, who in addition to being a student of mine at Rollins College and a performer in the project, took on the critical role of production stage manager. Stacy was truly instrumental in helping me figure out the basics of fringing Orlando-style and as the company took shape, the project certainly benefited from the expertise of other fringe veterans as well.
One of my favorite memories of this particular project was that the ensemble drew from a wide berth of sources, including some members of my on-campus troupe, Rollins Improv Players — that was just starting to gain some momentum — improvisers drawn from the SAK Comedy Lab stable, as well as actors and performers from the local community (and for the first time as a fellow improviser, my wife!).
The Basic Premise: A theme-based one-act long-form, each performance of E Pluribus Unum takes inspiration from a slate of audience offers and suggestions, weaving together monologues and stories through multiple scenic rounds.
The basis of this form was largely developed during my time at Louisiana State University with my troupe there, The Improvisors (what a creative name!) It would certainly be fair to characterize it as Harold-esque in the broadest sense, although the major similarity would be the utilization of several rounds of reappearing scenes. The “feel” and momentum differs greatly in that there are typically many more vignettes that are shorter in length, each drawing inspiration from the array of suggestions elicited at the top of the show. We were also very much aiming for a slice-of-life style of performance tackling some complex issues head on. My current format, Variations on a Theme, on the Rollins College campus is certainly the next iteration of this experiment.
Perhaps one of the more unique facets of this particular production and form was our use of live percussion throughout that provided the heartbeat of the structure. Our company included many gifted musicians/percussionists, Keith, Eli, Zeldagrey and Jay among others, and this was a central element from our earliest rehearsals. As the company came from a wide variety of backgrounds and training modalities, we also had a nice variety of styles, energies and approaches which complemented each other more and more as the process unfolded. It was also certainly a risk to bring a less overtly comedic style of improv to a fringe festival, but we had solid attendance, garnered some nice reviews that understood and appreciated what we were going for, and I think (I hope!) the experience was largely positive for all involved.
There were certainly some lessons too. This was the first and last production of a company that I founded solely to mount this fringe show, the Impromptu Theatre Company. It was perhaps unavoidable, but name recognition goes a long way at a Fringe Festival, and being a new face in town working under an original production company moniker while offering a more nuanced style of improv provided a stack of challenges. The show title, while descriptive of the format, had a pretentious air too. As I noted above, I certainly benefited from fringe expertise within the company itself, but I think I under-estimated how much marketing and promotion efforts are needed when you are one of a hundred productions competing for audiences and attention. I’ve since seen the efforts and resources deployed at the Edinburgh Fringe and though I’d love to perform there, I find the very thought of it overwhelming. Eight of our fourteen company members rotated into performance positions for each show alongside percussionists and stage management, which did allow us to have some folks focus on marketing prior to each show, and a robust company certainly helped in terms of word of mouth.
The downside of a robust company was the profit split at the end of it all. I’m proud that we did actually end up reasonably in the black, especially for a first time endeavor, but dividing the returns into fourteen shares certainly provided a modest payment. Luckily, folks knew the likelihood of riches were low when they signed up (!) but as a producer I would have liked to have been able to provide more-than token remuneration.
I also wish I’d made a much more conscientious effort to take more professional photos of the show and the process. This was fifteen years ago when cameras and phones weren’t yet one and the same, but the few images I have do little to capture the feel of that show and certainly weren’t of the caliber to assist us in our marketing efforts.
Artistically, I was pretty happy with the result. The show had a slick and dynamic opening and closing, the company worked nicely together, and I think we did well balancing more overt comedy and humor with sincerity and truth which has become one of the central focal points of much of my work as a deviser. While I had a strong sense of the structure and constituent elements going into rehearsals due to the development period with the form at L.S.U., a company member did share that they would have liked a better sense of the big picture as the process begun. They felt themselves wanting a clearer road map earlier, and I think that’s a fair and helpful expectation especially when there isn’t a common training unifying the group from day one. I’m still not 100% sold that this style or material was the best fit for a Fringe Festival, but we found an audience that seemed to like what we were doing!
Improvising at an exclusively improv-focused festival feels substantially different than providing such an offering at a more diverse and inclusive theatrical fringe. Has that been others’ experience as well?