Going to Tennessee Without a Net

photo by Kirk Schenck

Last year, an august publication devoted to truth, justice and cold beer at a reasonable price awarded the coveted honor of best theatrical production to a show that lasted one night: Awkward Party, a longform improv piece that illustrated the incredible storytelling potential of throwing a cast on stage, giving them loosely defined characters in a different situation each night, and then unleashing them for 90 minutes. Each performance was a completely different experience, built from scratch and then jettisoned by the next performance.

It was a remarkable and entertaining show, so who wouldn’t be looking forward to this year’s production, jointly produced by Stages Theatre and Spectacles Improv Engine? It’s the same formula: actors have no idea what characters they will play until moments before the play begins, where or when the play will be set, or what they, and their colleagues, will be saying at any given time.

But this year’s production, Pretendesee Williams, has a new wrinkle. Instead of the audience being asked what kind of party that evening’s show will be, and to choose one-word character points of view from a list of about 200 (angelic to wise) and those personas arbitrarily given to the actors, this show revolves around a title of a play that Tennessee Williams might have written, and archetypes from his canon are chosen by an audience member out of a hat.

Last Saturday, the play title, created by an audience member, was The Lavender Rose Turns Black, and the archetypes chosen ranged from Maggie and Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to Laura from The Glass Menagerie and Stanley from Streetcar Named Desire. The characters were then distributed to the actors regardless of age, look or gender (for instance, someone may play Stanley one night, and Blanche the next).  Given their characters and three words that embody their personalities, the actors retreated backstage to find appropriate costumes and, without saying a word to each other about their characters or the play title, then took the stage to create. Something.

Obviously in a play like this when, when actors enter and exit based on feel, and no one knows what anyone is going to do or say, listening is critical for the cast. And there were several times during this performance in question when you could almost hear the wheels in the actor’s minds turning, searching for some kind of response. And while the first act, which seemed to center around characters yearning to break free of societal constraints—and eat lots of exotic Eyetalian food—felt nothing like the second, which turned out to be as sad and forlorn as Williams’ real plays, the experience was still fascinating and evocative. The realization that for 90 minutes actors are performing without any script, or any clue as to where their journey is taking them, somehow batters the boundary between audience and performer. The people doing the work are just as clueless as the audience when it comes to the narrative, the only difference being  the cast has to rely on its skill, imagination, ingenuity and ample study of Williams’ characters, to somehow keep the thing rolling.

But though completely improvised, Josh Nicols, the show’s director, admits there is a skeleton structure. This form of improv is called the Woolf,  a style created by Caitlin Lopez, inspired, sort of, by the structure of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It  consists of four scenes, with something important needing to be established in each. For instance, in the first scene, characters have to establish who they are and their relationship with other characters. In the second, characters reveal secrets or wants or desires. The third scene is where all that comes to play, and characters react, and the fourth scene is the aftermath, which explores,  Nicols says, “how the land is different from the earthquake in the third scene.”

But, every night is different and some nights, those skeletal remains are more insubstantial than others. For instance, the big reveal that drives the rest of the plot forward is supposed to come shortly before intermission. Last Saturday, that didn’t happen, and it was up to Nicols to drop the bomb in the third scene that builds the narrative to its tragic conclusion.

“Essentially, on that night, we hadn’t done it properly,” he said. “We don’t have plot points aligned or anything set up, but we do know in certain scenes, things need to be accomplished, not specific things, but general things. And for whatever reason, that thing that needs to be introduced to shake the foundation of the characters didn’t come where it was supposed to.”

That reveal needs to be in line with some kind of thematic motif explored by Williams. A character announcing that an alien invasion is imminent, for instance, wouldn’t work, but revealing that a family’s patriarch committed suicide, or a husband admits he is a cuckold but stays with his wife anyway, would be. Remember, it’s Tennessee Williams. So everyone is SUFFERING!

That Big Reveal, which drives the rest of the show, may not come at the same place this Saturday, the show’s closing performance.  Or it might. But until about three minutes before they start, no one in the cast will have any idea who might do it, or why. But know this, oh ye of little faith. While it might be hard to believe that when they’re off-stage, actors aren’t huddling together and hammering out a rough idea of what they’re going to do next, or to draw on a past performance to assist the current one, Nichols said the only things actors talk about is what has already been established that night.

“Absolutely not,” Nichols said, of his cast working together to build the play when not on stage. “I am very militant about that.”

STAGES Theatre, 400 E. Commmonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484/ Sat., 2:30 p.m. $20-$22. www.stagesoc.org.


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