Thank God they're back in the black
Live improvisation has ditched its daggy image, writes Fiona Scott-Norman.
THERE are lots of ways to spend winter. Dressed in team colours, existentialism and dim hopes at a St Kilda game, kvetching about the electricity bill, or doorknocking your local neighbourhood to remind young people to enrol to vote before they're disenfranchised by cynical government legislation. Or you can liven things up with the potent combination of warmth and terror - i.e. an open fire and live improvisation - at the fifth season of Impro Melbourne's The Impro Cave.
Impro is, to most people, a spectator sport up there with bull-fighting and Paris Hilton baiting. Fascinating, gory and you're pleased that it's not you in the ring/prison/sex video. According to Lliam Amor, performing live impro tends to inspire strong emotions.
"Most people find it really terrifying to step on stage with no script, others find it really exhilarating. I say I'm not going to do it for a while but then I always come back. Like any good drug you can't let it go; with impro the first hit's free and then you pay for it. And, of course, there's the craving for audience approval."
Amor (who you'd recognise as the taxi driving dad in the ever-running AAMI ad), has been improvising for 15 years and is one of the passionate core members of Impro Melbourne the group which presents Celebrity Theatresports, Smells Like A Song, Theatresports, Late Nite Impro during the Comedy Festival, Unforseen Stories, and impro classes.
After a few years in the doldrums, improv is on the up and up again. Shows such as Thank God You're Here, Jim Henson's Puppets Uncensored and Who's Line Is It Anyway?, and local groups such as Spontaneous Broadway and Impro Sundae, have re-piqued the interest of audiences who evaporated after the glory years of the '80s, when Theatresports was celebrity studded, on TV, and selling out Hamer Hall. Amor says that that sort of cycle is inevitable.
"I think it reached its natural peak and that wasn't sustainable. The company went bankrupt. But a small band of rebels kept the dream alive and we started again. It's pretty exciting now."
For Impro Melbourne, born from the ashes of Flying Pig, starting again meant some serious retooling and moving on from just playing Theatresports. The company went back to study with Keith Johnstone, the man who is to improv what Einstein was to weapons of mass destruction, and began experimenting with a mass of other formats. A lot of these will be on show at The Impro Cave, which opens on Sunday.
"We trial and remount stuff we've created ourselves, we rotate the cast, and we do a different format every week. In the first week we're doing The Hell Show, which is a format from LA where all the players are in hell, and trying to win their way out to purgatory by pleasing Satan, who's hosting the show."
Other formats include Guerilla Theatre, Harold, Couples, Uber Improv, which celebrates all things German from bratwurst to lederhosen, and H'bout This, where a player has to pitch an idea, which can lead to all kinds of outcomes.
"One night someone pitched, 'Instead of seeing a bat, Batman looked out of a window and saw . . .' and someone in the audience called out 'seagull', so the scene was about Seagull-Man."
Amor says that the quality of contemporary impro is high, not least due to ditching the competitive element.
"It took a while for us to realise that being competitive made for bad impro. Players were undercutting each other and sabotaging because they were trying to win. The whole idea underpinning Impro Melbourne is making your partner look good. It sounds glib but if you're on stage and you're trying to make the other person look good, and vice versa, you become a very generous performer."The