There’s a risk in everything we do. Granted, the risk may be negligible to downright perilous but our limited capability to foresee with absolute certainty carries a measure of unknowable results or consequences. We can hedge our bets based on experience. We rely on consistencies, routines and sometimes a faulty sense of confidence in ourselves and our judgment to carry us through to the next minute, the next hour and into the next week. All these moments collectively become a life lived and earned.
Among other aspects, what separates man from the animals is not only our ability to communicate but our fascination with watching other humans play, perform, (possibly preen), and create something finite and illusory for the benefit of strangers. It’s a curious evolution. Even more curious is our fascination with observing others taking a risk, calculated or not, and judging the results on an internal scale from boredom, disappointment, satisfaction to joy. There are those who enjoy watching others fail, a sort of pleasure in schadenfreude. We make money and sacrifice a small portion of it to be entertained be it a football game, a concert, a play or a film. This again is curious as squirrels do not collect nuts in order to set aside a few choice walnuts to see other squirrels catapult from tree limb to tree limb…with style critiqued by the observing squirrels. Only man does that.
Even odder is our struggle or at least the encompassing allure with risk in all its possible scenarios played out before us and our strange desire to see it met with either disastrous results or bravely overcome and thereby succeeding in spite of the danger. We concurrently want someone to ultimately win at a Nascar race and witness a couple of car wrecks along the way. We root for the figure skater but a tiny part expects him or her to fall after a triple axel. The spill or carnage is part of the glory such is our primal nature. We feed on the unknowable and while some may hope for the best possible outcome, part of us gets a kick out of watching a resplendent failure.
In the realm of theater, risk is part of the process both for the performer(s) and the audience. There are ways to minimize the risk of high tedium by reading reviews of those who have gone into the trenches to report back. There’s a level of trust and a tacit agreement made every time a ticket is bought and an individual sits in a community space to be transported for an amount of time. The agreement rests on the idea or notion that another human being would not seek out embarrassment or approbation willingly and thereby the performance developed by a small group of professional folks will at least attempt to produce some sort of effect. Sometimes this happens with pleasing results and other times it is as grisly as watching speeding cars collide in flames on a racetrack. We are afforded something, a result, in the reciprocal nature of observers and the observed.
At least in the realm of theater and film, there is a filtering process between the writer, the director, the cast, the set designer and all the myriad of creative people to put something before us and have its audience judge the merit and its satisfactory content. Sometimes all the people in the world cannot deliver a fine performance perhaps due to a sketchy script, lousy actors or whatnot. Therein is the risk. And even the worst show can bring about impassioned responses. It is peculiar and curious our ability to hope for success and delight in some small part the abysmal failures of another because thank god, at least it isn’t us up there dying on a proscenium. Risk is one of the motivating factors in art, both in its creation and its reception.
Upping the ante of risk is Impro Theatre’s troupe of improvisational performances ripping on a literary theme from the Bard himself to Jane Austen, Chekhov, Williams and now Rod Serling. This specialized group of actors thrives on risk as they perform without a script, without so much as an outline of what will happen when they come to the stage. It’s a bit like walking a tightrope without a net but I venture to say it’s like walking a tightrope in a veil of fog. Risk? It’s a risky business indeed as every performance is literally devised in the spur of the moment. And this risk is shared by its audience each and every performance as what Tom and Dick saw at The Falcon Theater on Saturday night is NOT the same show Jane and Suzy saw on Thursday.
While an argument can be made that every performance is organic and mutable to some degree, Impro Theatre produces a uniquely tailored show memorialized only by audience members in attendance on a particular night. There is no structure beyond the performers' familiarity with the authorship in question. There is no guarantee of anything beyond several players taking suggestions from the audience and literally “seeing what happens.”
In theater, improvisation is akin with Nascar. It can go very well and smoothly, but let’s be honest, is that why people watch Nascar? Beyond the gambling element, the gamble is in the fact we as spectators may observe a spectacular crash and burn. It is the thrill, the tantalizing titillation of the potential risk even if the results are not nearly as favorable as we may have hoped for. Just observing a tight-roper make his or her way across Niagara Falls creates a story within us of potential outcomes: will they make it across, will they fall, or will they stop and need to be rescued by a helicopter? These internal and boundless stories are created by the observer, less by the tight-roper just taking each and every dangerous step one at a time. We become a part of the story unfolding before us by vicariously experiencing the risk with another from a different perspective; the outside looking in versus the inside looking out.
Improv is about as scary, thrilling, sometimes unrewarding as it gets. It requires quick thinking, creative solutions, and a moment-to-moment text written in midair, on the fly and off the cuff. Anyone who has done improv knows one of the guidelines is to always say yes to whatever is presented and make it work even if whatever is offered to the performer is so outlandish, so bizarre or to their own detriment. Say yes! It takes the Meisner approach of listening to a whole new level of tightrope walking as the group sinks or swims without the benefit of structural integrity to keep the players well in line and safe from a free fall.
Seeing Impro Theatre is a bit like going to a Nascar race. You want everyone to come out alive, but knowing what is at stake as the lights rise and the players stand unbeknownst to them what will actually occur in the next 90 minutes is a thrill within itself regardless of the quality produced. We are spectators demanding this troupe to afford us some continuity, characters, a plot line and a satisfying resolve with a recommendation shouted out from the seats. Do this! Explore that! And these actors jump in with only the knowledge of Serling in this case to guide them. That’s frickin’ awesome!
Oh sure, what unfolds onstage may be less than stellar, but even in the lapses are those crystalline moments or realizations of genius, creativity sublime, or happy accidents comingling to make something out of a reference as vague as “Revolutionary War” or as hyper-specific as a “Fuller Brush salesman.” What the what now? To take a germ of an idea and make it not only play out but be consistent to the genre of the writer is no easy task which is why this show is so successful, entertaining and yes, risky.
No one reading this review will witness the same show I saw due to the variables of the audience or the players. My fellow audience members of around 100 are the only ones who saw two men in a maternity ward waiting room discover their wives are giving birth to were-babies and due to the full moon, turn into werewolves themselves. You, patient reader, will not see that show. You will not see a teenage geeky girl protesting against the violence of football by becoming a superhero imbued with extraordinary powers by the sudden appearance of Leonardo Da Vinci. Weird, huh? And yet it worked because this “episode” in question was literally dying on the vine and required one of the actors to be a hero and save the scene. There are amazing twists of plot, awareness and a realization not only the cast experiences in the moment but more rewarding so too the audience. There is camaraderie and a relationship beyond which one finds in a scripted play but in this defiant, “show me” attitude resonating throughout the audience and an ecclesiastical joy when the actors onstage find a way to pull the scene off.
The risk here is part of the attraction. The payoff is uncertain. The particularity of what we see on a given night is a gift beyond the nuance and organic nature of live performance but a treasure for us to keep for having made the risk to see actors, in essence, wing it. It’s special. It’s exhilarating and yes, there are moments when the actors are befuddled by the circumstances they find themselves in. It’s the foible of the tightrope-walker and our collective gasp and oohs and ahs as they regain balance, much to our admitted relief and less admitted disappointment.
Twilight Zone fans will enjoy the opening and closing Serling-esque monologues as the actors based on little more than a whim, spout off a setup and finish with thoughtful and specific observation. The four “episodes” can take an arduous amount of time to sort itself out but every episode one way or another lands the plane, sometimes solidly and other times a bit nosedown.
Another interestingly voyeuristic part of the experience is seeing the mercurial thinking of some actors and those who simply get in over their head and offer very little in terms of support. The weaker performers standout among those who hilariously get the job done and shine in their own comic brilliance or to put it less mildly in Mamet fashion, “They close the fucking deal.”
Watching the struggle, the grapple and the inherent surprise with each and every new development happening in real time is enough to put anyone on their edge of their seat. Among those who performed in last night’s show, special mention goes to the keen commitment of Kelly Holden-Bashar, the witty timing of Brian Michael Jones, the generous Paul Rogan and the stalwart foundation of the troupe, Stephen Kearin. When not onstage, the cast fills in with sound effects to create ambiance. Lights and sound are not cued and delivered seamlessly on demand. The whole effect is spectacular and has to be seen to be believed. There are no guarantees and hence, a review of this kind of show is suspect by the very nature of this kind of high wire performance. However, I can comfortably recommend taking the risk along with Impro Theatre as they make sure regardless of the source material to deliver.
Twilight Zone fans should make a point to catch this show before it closes at the end of the month as it does surprisingly capture the essence and rigidity of Serling’s and other notable writers such as Richard Matheson’s imagination. For me, I’m a Twilight Zone fan. I am also a champion of any performer willing to take a risk and step into the unknown beyond the usual stricture and structure of typical theater. I’ve seen a lot of scripted plays as of late unworthy of my criticism in its lack of risk-taking.
Now, if you’ve come this far, please permit my personal admission…I saw this with mixed emotions for fear the improvisational nature would not live up to the Twilight Zone format. I took the risk, sadly towards the end of its run. I hope this will return again at a later date and I’ll be there, not as a critic, but as a fan. But seeing this was very personal to me as my favorite writer Richard Matheson, a contributor for The Twilight Zone series, passed away earlier this year. I’ve yet to write about his passing as I did with Ray Bradbury. I spoke with Matheson at length twice and among other subjects, his writing for The Twilight Zone was one of his proudest achievements. I wish “The Twilight Zone: Unscripted” had played at the Falcon Theater last year or years ago. Richard Matheson would’ve thoroughly enjoyed it if I can be so bold in my assumption. Not for nothing, but that’s saying a lot to Impro Theatre. I wish mightily Mr. Matheson were around to have seen this and throughout the episodes, I caught a couple of “Matheson” moments. In a way, I was transported to a sort of Twilight Zone where the writer who inspires me to this day was still among us, his stories, humor and signature style of making the impossible possible. The Impro Theatre did Serling and Matheson proud. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet?” Matheson would’ve laughed and said, “Try a nightmare five feet away from an audience and no script. Astonishing!” I miss him. Horribly. Every damn day.
There’s always a risk in everything we do and Impro Theatre’s production lives up to the inherent risk in storytelling, performing and ultimately creating something magical. We take risks each and every day and pay to see others take risks on our behalf. Due to the nature of this type of show I cannot guarantee what will result, but is it worth the risk? Yes, always, yes. It is the curious nature of humanity and through the creative process we enter into the unknown very much like what one may find in The Twilight Zone.
Photos by Chelsea Sutton & Dan O'Connor
“The Twilight Zone: Unscripted”
Runs through September 29
Wed, Thurs, Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Sundays @ 4pm
Special additional Sat performance matinee added on Sept 28 @ 4pm
The Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Drive
Burbank, CA 91505
Want to know what other Theatre Critics are saying? Check out Bitter Lemons to see if others have reviewed this production.