Custom-Made Theatre

This has been an amazing year for MainStreet, and we made a video as a way to look back and reflect on the wonderful people we had the opportunity to work with.

2015 is coming to a close, but we are already working on productions for 2016! Our first show of the New Year is FairyTales UnScripted, which opens January 30, 2016.

We’re teaming up with critically acclaimed improvisational theatre company Impro Theatre for a unique take on the world of Fairy Tales. Each performance will include two completely improvised stories that no one has ever seen, and no one will ever see again! I was able to talk to Dan O’Connor, one of the co-directors of FairyTales UnScripted, and learn more about long-form improve, and Impro.

How did Impro and long form improv start?

We started in 1988 as LA Theatre Sports, a regular improv company. At Theatre Sports we had a format called Triple Play. We would get suggestions from the audience for a playwright, a film director, and a musical genre. With those suggestions we would do a play in each style, so we would do three different, three-act plays in the course of 90 minutes. Those were a little crazier because of how fast they were.

In the late 90s we started doing full-length improvised Shakespearean plays. A few other core company members and I wanted to take advantage of our strong background in theatre, and our drama school education, to add not only Shakespeare, but also Chekhov and other literature to our improvisation. There was a continuous interest in this idea of long-form improv, so we restarted the company in 2005 as Impro.

We write the shows on the spot and the audiences tend to react well to that idea. They can see 30 different shows in the length of one run and never see the same show twice. We have about 12 themes that we do, and are now adventuring into more challenging avenues like farce and fairy tales. For FairyTales UnScripted the show will be scored live, so the musician will be improvising right along with us. The terrific thing for us, is that based on how the audience responds we can take the show into different directions. It’s kind of “custom made theater” based on what the kids are digging and reacting to, and that can change with each performance. We can expand on whatever is working and whatever the audience is enjoying, and that makes no two shows the same.

So many people have not been introduced to improv, that they don’t believe us when we say it’s made up. There is always someone in the lobby thinking they found our trick or secret, and we always tell them to come back another night to show them there is no trick.

Shakespeare seemed like the perfect genre to start with because of our background from school. Like an improv company, Shakespeare didn’t have a set or budget and constantly addressed the fourth wall. The actors painted the information in the minds of the audience, which is what we try to do with our shows.  We often don’t have the budget or spaces to do a large production, so we engage them through talking and actions like Shakespeare had to do.

Sometimes we do have the opportunity to have larger production values, and to incorporate more technical aspects, like we will for Fairytales UnScripted at MainStreet.

When we performed Western Unscripted, our set included a two story hotel and a saloon. We had holsters and hats and the whole nine yards, but still had to mime horses and bows and arrows. For that run we even installed cameras on the doors, and monitors behind them so the actors could see what was happening on the other side of the door.

The idea behind Impro was to make improv a more legitimate theatrical form, and we don’t believe there is anyone else doing this kind of work. We are not doing parody, we are always trying to actually recreate a Hans Christian Anderson story (for example), and all of our themes are inspired by the works, not mocking them. We are inspired by Sondheim without using any Sondheim music. Our musical director looked at the musical motifs but we are not using any prewritten music or lyrics.

How do you pick which theme you perform next?

There are themes we have played with before that we want to do again, or a director gets excited about a new theme and we go in that direction. Personally I would love to do Chekhov every year, but you have to think about what other people would be excited about, and what the audience would be excited about.

How did MainStreet get the opportunity to work with your unique company?

Murry had seen a lot of our work and then saw our run of Western Unscripted at the Falcon Theatre with the fully realized set. Michael Manuel, who has worked at MainStreet and is one of our guest artists, invited her down to see us. We had talked about wanting to do a fairytale theme again, and she was intrigued about what we could do at MainStreet. It was a nice harmonic convergence that brought everything together.