Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Take one energetic mistress of ceremonies, a sextet of extremely capable actors, a few audience suggestions and simmer gently for forty-five minutes to create a soap opera the likes of which you’ve never seen before, and are extremely unlikely to see again.
I don’t watch soaps. The plot lines are thin and dull, the acting almost invariably as wooden as a chunk of four-by-two and the characters barely believable. And my experience of improvised theatre has been mixed to put it mildly – too much random spraff from folks barely able to string a sentence together and with little apparent interest in engaging with the audience, which is what the genre is all about.
So what was I doing pitching up at ‘This Is Soap – the Improvised Soap Opera’ at roast-beef-and-a- glass-of-claret time on a Sunday? I shouldn’t have been so skeptical. The energetic mistress of ceremonies, Pippa, thrust a piece of paper into each audience member’s hand and asked them to write down the name of any person, an object and something that they might say about that that object, or anything in general. Result? Instant character formation and the potential for plot development.
Grabbing an improvised title from a willing member of the congregation, she then lets each of the four boys and two girls who make the acting troupe pick a slip of paper at random and introduce themselves to the audience. This generates the usual mix of characters spiced up by the fact that inevitably one boy draws a girl’s role, a girl a boy’s and there’s someone who ends up dealing with considerable dubiety about their sexuality.
So far, so funny. But how were they going to build a soap opera around all this? Simple. Introduce that theme for all soap occasions, love, and the characters desperate search for it. This pretty much guarantees that the forty-five minutes will slip past before you realise what’s happening and gives the actors the chance to develop their characters as well as have a bit of fun between themselves and the audience.
You certainly need to be quick on your feet at this game. Each of our very impressive sextet had just a few seconds to decide how they were going to integrate the audience’s suggestion for their character into a template they presumably drew from their stock. They also needed to listen to each other and build the storyline from the very thin clues they got from the audience.
The effervescent Pippa ensured that nothing dragged as she threw in a series of exercises designed to keep the audience interested and the actors on their mettle. True, some of these looked as if they had been plucked straight from last term’s class at acting school, but they were none the worse for that. This, plus the clever insertion of ad breaks and the obligatory interviewing of a ‘soap star’ on the morning TV chat show sofa made this a very interesting and entertaining demonstration of just how much goes into devising and delivering improvised theatre. Good improve simply doesn’t happen by accident – it’s not something that can be carried off by the untrained or inexperienced.
So hats off to this very clever, quick witted, impressive and energetic group. They were clearly comfortable in their own skins when it came to developing a persona but they worked especially well as a unit, throwing each other lines to keep the plot moving and giving each other centre-stage when the situation merited it. Missing my roast beef wasn’t such a hardship after all.