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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

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