Improv walks a tight rope.
Improv performers are like high-wire artists working without a net. With no script to follow, they risk disaster at every show. In the past few years there's been an explosion of new improv companies in Philadelphia. This year's Philly Fringe features about a dozen improv troupes including longtime Fringe favorite LunchLady Doris, the upstart N Crowd and the ambitious Philly Theater Improv.
For those unfamiliar with improv, there are two distinct styles represented at the festival: short-form improv--which can be seen in N Crowd's Fringe show Triple Double Feature--and long-form, the style favored by LunchLady Doris and Philly Improv. N Crowd executive director BJ Ellis explains that short-form typically takes the appearance of a brief game as in the company's Day in a Life, in which an audience member's daily activities are recreated (with amusing embellishments) by performers on stage.
The style known as long-form improv is more akin to a short one-act play. Usually running about 30 minutes, the action is inspired by audience suggestion but then the performers take over. More complex than short-form, in long-form, themes emerge and converge. Although usually funny, long-form doesn't boast the same laugh-a-minute humor that defines short-form.
LunchLady Doris is the grand dame of long-form improv in Philly. A veteran of all 10 Fringe festivals, LLD returns again this year with an eponymous show that features the company's unique brand of twisted humor. Unlike many other troupes, LLD's members move easily between improv and conventional theater.
Co-founder David Jadico says it's impossible to make a living solely from improv, but the skills he's developed have led to other opportunities not only in conventional theater, but also on television where he hosts a children's craft program for Activity TV. Asked what being in an improv troupe is like Jadico says, "Like being in a garage band, but with a lot less chicks."
The relationship among the city's improv companies is highly incestuous, with members of different improv companies often forming splinter groups and collaborating on side projects. No company in the city represents the mixing and mingling of group members more than Philly Improv Theater.
Begun in 2005 by PIT executive director Greg Maughan, the company has rented the Adrienne theater's mainstage for the duration of the festival to showcase a wide array of local improv troupes. Among the productions at the Adrienne is PIT's new improv-to-script musical The Hoppers Hit the Road, which features performers from a number of the city's top improv companies.
Based on characters created by Mike Connor and Brandon Libby, the show (about two musical brothers in search of the ultimate gig) was created during an intensive weekend of improvisation. The cast's improvisations were recorded and then used by Connor and Libby to create Road's dialogue, music and lyrics.
"We really wanted to write something that showcases the improv talent in Philadelphia," says Connor.
Jadico, Maughan and Ellis all say the best improv performers are fearless onstage. "In improv conditions, you have to be comfortable with not knowing what's going to happen next," says Jadico. "In the end, improv is all about your relationship with the audience. If you show fear, it makes the audience uncomfortable." Ellis agrees that the audience is king. He says, "Shows can be made or destroyed by an audience."
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