Senior Adam McDowell directed an improv show in the Studio Theatre this weekend, entitled “Don’t Put that in the Soup!” Unlike the more common forms of improvisational theatre seen in shows like, “Whose Line is it Anyway?”, McDowell’s show centered on a single performance lasting about half an hour.
This was a kind of improv I’ve never seen before. It was the improv equivalent of jazz. The troupe started with a single word suggested by the audience and then cultivated it into an elaborate narrative. For example, on the first night, McDowell chose an audience member’s cry of “Umbilical cord!” A cast member then posed as an umbilical cord (this is difficult to describe, but the effect worked) and said, “I am the umbilical chord!” Another posed as the baby, a third as the teenage mother, a forth as the father thinking of escape plans, and so forth. This continued, with actors leaving old positions in the tableau for new ones when the cast was exhausted, until someone thought of a scene. This began a surprisingly coherent, bawdy satire about a pair of teen parents and a single mother brought together by their children, whom some disorderly orderlies had swapped at birth.
After the show, I asked McDowell if the troupe had followed any specific format or set of conventions in improvising their scenes. He said that the only real convention had been to enter the stage from the side was to start a new scene, and that to enter it from behind was to join the current scene. That in mind, the actors just thought of scenes within the current plot and improvised them. They had a knack for “in early, out late” that some professional filmmakers could learn from: every scene started in the heat of the moment and ended there. McDowell’s craft also showed in the sparse staging. There were six chairs onstage for seven actors, so someone was always stuck in the middle and the action never stopped.
All in all, it was more fun than I’ve had with improv in a while. The form drew it out into a whole narrative with a plot and running jokes, rather than coming up with a few disjointed gags on the spot and calling it a show. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of other improv I’ve liked, but McDowell’s show did something I didn’t think was possible with improv.