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Monday, May 23, 2011

Bmag May 24th 2011 - When Spencer is Premier

Nova 106.9 breakfast host Meshel Laurie was recently asked in a live chat online who she hopes is Premier of Queensland after the next election. Her reply: “I wish Spencer Howson could be our Premier. It would be a lovely, informative state and [referring to my penchant for donning ABC-branded clothing] we’d all wear tidy polo shirts every day”.

Crikey, I thought to myself. With Meshel Laurie’s clout behind me, I’d better come up with some policies quicksmart. I started jotting down ideas. I also enlisted my ABC breakfast listeners and together we’ve come up with a blue-print for my assault on the top job. Email me at with any additional policy ideas!

It goes without saying that world peace and an end to poverty and discrimination top the list and will be achieved within the first 100 days. But the real question is: what next?

First of all, there will be a government-sponsored advertising campaign reminding people how to use apostrophes, the difference between “there is” and “there are”, and when to use “fewer” instead of “less”. A second campaign will teach people how to indicate on roundabouts and how to stand on escalators (to the left unless overtaking).

In a similar vein, ABC listener Pam of Eatons Hill wants white dotted lines on all footpaths to encourage people to walk on the left. Sue says pub pool rules should be standardised. For example, does a coin on the table mean you play the winner or you take over the table? Colin, of Bribie Island, suggests a set day and time for leaf-blowing and mowing to make the rest of the week just a little bit more peaceful!

Under a Howson government, airports will paint a yellow line two metres from the luggage carousel, behind which passengers can wait until they see their bags.

Shops and fast food restaurants will have one queue, peeling off at the cash registers. There is no fairer way of deciding who is served next. It also saves the stress of trying to pick the fastest queue! There will be no such thing as a minimum EFTPOS transaction. Instead, you will be given the option to pay a small surcharge. I watched a young boy the other day unable to purchase a $4.99 toy because of a shop’s $10 minimum transaction. I’m sure he would have been happier to pay an extra 15 cents than cough up another $5.

Listener Glenn, from Eden’s Landing, wants petrol stations to display tomorrow’s price alongside today’s. Chris suggests a signal be devised so that motorists can indicate they’re about to perform a U-Turn. Marlene says seniors wanting smaller portions should be allowed to order from the children’s menu in restaurants.

When I’m Premier, we’ll have more doors on trains, making it easier for passengers to get on and off, and speeding up the entire network. When you have no mobile phone coverage, you will be given the option to pay a small fee to use a different carrier. This will be just like paying to use another bank’s ATM. TV shows will start and finish on time. Post offices will have stamp machines, or separate stamp queues, so you don’t get stuck behind people paying bills, applying for passports and buying novelty office equipment for birthday presents!

Finally, to ensure the ongoing support of my campaign manager Meshel Laurie, everyone will be supplied with free polo shirts!

In response to my last column on improv vs scripted theatre, I received a note from Alison Pollard-Mansergh who plays Sybil in the touring Faulty Towers Dining Experience. Alison is back home in Brisbane now but was on tour in the Netherlands – they read bmag online all over the world! – when she wrote: “I’m often asked how I could play the same role in the same show for 14 years. The reason is that the show is both scripted and improvised. Often the audience doesn’t know where the script ends and the improv begins. This is a huge joy for us as performers. It’s about time improv had a resurgence in Brisbane. International festivals such as Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes are full of fantastic edge-of-your-seat improv shows.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bmag May 10th 2011 - Improv vs scripted theatre

There’s a theatre show in Brisbane at the moment which never ends the same way twice. As a result, fans return night after night and are rewarded with a different experience every time. But it’s risky for both the performers and the audience.

It’s called Prognosis: Death! and is best described as a long-form improvised comedy. You might know improvisational theatre – or improv – from TV shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway? and Thank God You’re Here. Those with a longer memory might recall Theatre Sports on ABC TV in the late 1980s, introduced by Paul Chubb and featuring the likes of Andrew Denton, Shaun Micallef and Glenn Robbins.

Unlike Theatre Sports, with its short games and sketches, Prognosis: Death! is a single story, similar in length to a scripted play and with an interval, but the plot is concocted on the night, based on suggestions – or “offers” – from the audience. This particular show has become something of a cult hit and is currently playing its fourth season.

Queensland Theatre Company also has a long-form semi-improvised work playing in Brisbane this month. An Oak Tree is a two-hander. One actor has a script whilst the other must improvise. The latter role is being performed by 23 different actors during the season.

But improv theatre is not for everyone. I started to wonder whether there was a strong divide in the theatre community between traditional plays and improv so I put the question to my actor friend Norman Doyle.

Norman quickly calmed down my journalistic instinct to paint the story in black and white! He says, “It seems to me an odd debate. There’s no real conflict between actors doing plays and those doing improv. They’re often the same people. Improv is useful for actors in plays, both in rehearsal and, when required, on stage. To contrive a division is spurious. We’re all in the same pool, but are more proficient at different strokes than others.”

However, when asked about his preference, Norman Doyle offered this insight: “I’m not big into improv for the simple reason that many practitioners are 10 times less funny than they think they are. If you play funny, you’re less funny.” Ouch.

Natalie Bochenski, artistic director of ImproMafia, the company behind Prognosis: Death!, admits “it can fail. It does fail. But when you hit a high note, when a story comes together, or a joke just bursts out of nowhere and makes the audience guffaw, the feeling is unlike anything I personally experience in scripted theatre. You could say the lows are lower but the highs are oh-so-higher.

“Some actors don’t like improvisation or won’t do it. Some say they don’t have the skill for it but I suspect it’s more about fear.”

Of course, that risk is there for the Theatre on the edge audience as well. If you’re hooked in by a positive theatre review and go along to a play, you’re safe in the knowledge you will see close to the same production you were reading about in the review. But with improv, you can’t be sure what you’ll see.

The fact is, some improv moments will fall flat. But from my experience, the audience is always so supportive, so ready to be taken on a mystery tour, that somehow it works. It’s not the dips you’ll remember the next day. It’s the great moments and the huge belly-laughs. And you’ll marvel at where the performers pulled them from.

Prognosis: Death! is on at Brisbane Arts Theatre, Petrie Terrace, and An Oak Tree is on at Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane, both until 14 May. Norman Doyle’s next play is Nina Raine’s Rabbit at Metro Arts, city, from 22 July to 6 August.

Finally, in my column in bmag a few weeks ago (22 March), I told you about Evan Davis and his event-based travels around the world. Evan’s Twitter friends have just spent a couple of weeks with him in the UK, at the Royal Wedding and searching for the Loch Ness Monster. Evan, dubbed “The Man in the Front Row of History”, was even part of the BBC’s coverage of the wedding! For those who are keen to armchairtravel with Evan, his next event is the Eurovision Song Contest in Germany. Click on