Late Night Theatre Jam

As in Jazz, Here is a Group of Players Who Get Together and Create Something Out of Nothing

On The Town | Alexandra Ruths | March 2007

Jim Libby: “The nice thing about improv is that, because everything is created in the moment, each performer is everything.“ (Photo: urtheAther)

Gasping for air, I circled one of the round tables in Vienna’s Theatre ‘Drachengasse,’ to get to my seat. Late as usual, I had run all the way from Schwedenplatz to the narrow side street at Fleischmarkt 22, stumbled up the stairs to the entrance hall, hurried down the narrow flight leading to the ticket counter and a few more stairs up to the hall.  It was 22:30 and time for the "Theatre Jam" improv night of the English Lovers, the bi-weekly performance of Austria’s Theatre Sport A-team.

Tucking into a table in the far right corner, I realised there was no need to hurry. The audience was still scattered around the hall, or gathered at the small bar in the back. The terracotta walls and arched, stone ceiling of the old building created a cave like atmosphere, even more so as the lights went off 10 minutes later.

The stage was empty, apart from a black chair set right in the middle. Only when the music started did it become clear that a piano and pianist were hidden in the wing, back stage right to accompany the actors for their good to not-so-good singing.

Then the laughter and conversation subsided as Jim Libby, co-founder of the English lovers walked out on stage, dressed in black, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

"Time to get you guys warmed up," he announced. This unnerved at least one newcomer in the audience, as he admitted afterwards. "The warming up thing scared me a bit," he confided. "I thought he would get us all on stage and make us act along with him."

No need to worry; Libby just needed a few answers, at very loud volume!

"What is your favourite food?" Answers exploded in shouts on all sides.

"Your mother’s maiden name?

"Your favourite color?"

This turned out to be a preparation for an exercise for later on, and a way of introducing tonight’s audience to the principles of improv theatre.

Libby paced the stage excitedly.

"Tonight we will ask you to create a story with us, and whatever happens tonight on this stage, is unique, unrepeatable, just for you and for us and for this very moment. And when it’s over, it’s over."

The late night theatre jam was launched six years ago as a co production of the English Lovers and the German impro theatre group ‘urtheater’, the idea was to have a place and time where improv theatre could take place on a regular basis.

"It is a whole other kind of show, it is an incredibly transformable kind of performance and can be played in very intimate, small places," Libby said. The show starts late so that the English lovers can invite colleagues over after their own performance. Like jazz musicians meeting for a jam session after hours at a club, "It should be a platform for coming together," Libby said.

In the beginning there were written words: The group’s first appearance in October 1997 was as a reading group, performing staged readings at the Theater Drachengasse. Their regular, late night spot was entitled, "English for English Lovers" and continued once a month until the summer of 2001. For their 2001 show "Who’s On Next?" a mix of improv and sketches written by various members of the group, they added song and dance. The show was a huge success both at the Drachengasse and at Vienna’s English Theatre in April 2002 and was followed the same year by "Zip Zap Zoom" and their first all improv en-suite show "Improv à la Carte." The English Lovers now play two en suite shows a year at the Theater Drachengasse, as well as the weekly "Late Night Theatre Jam".

"Like jazz, you have a bunch of players who create something out of nothing," Libby concluded, as the rest of the English lovers, who had been waiting in the wings, came running out on stage. Denis Kozeluh, Anne Weiner and Michael Smulik were all dressed in black. Their energy, smiles and vitality – Smulik couldn’t stand still – filled the stage and more than made up for their neutral clothing and the unspectacular background setting.

"There are no props or costumes because it would distract from the pure acting," they explained later. Improv can produce extremely powerful scenes, because the drama is created in the imagination of the audience.

As soon as the entire team was on stage, the warming up exercise came into its own, for now they kept on asking the audience for story suggestions. The first question, "choose an era of history," was met with silence. Only after Smulik reassured us ("this is not a test guys") did we relax and from somewhere came a shout: "18th century."

"Oookkay…" Libby questioned further: "Give me a place, a country.." – "France," a couple from another table shouted. Smulik nodded, "So far so good," and then asked, "Now tell me, what’s going on in 18th century France?"

"The French revolution, famine, war," my neighbour suggested. "And a girl wants to get married," added a woman in her forties, on a table close to the stage.

"Great, thanks guys," Libby said while taking a bunch of roses from a vase on top of the piano. But before they got started there is one more thing they wanted us to do, he said, throwing the roses, one by one , to members in the audience.

"Any time you feel that a scene on stage, a sentence or a dialogue ‘smells like a song,’ you throw a rose on stage, and we will make a song out of it, got that?" We nodded, a bit puzzled. Not much time to be confused, though, as the performance had already started. It was slow at the beginning, judging from some of the audience members’ facial expressions, clearly not sure of what to expect.

"It seemed to take some time to get going," an audience member said later. "But then it turned into an amazing and crazy story." As the drama slowly unfolded, each of the actors took on several personalities.

"The nice thing about improv theatre is that because everything is created in that moment, each performer is everything," the Lovers told me afterwards, "the director, the costume designer, the set designer, the choreographer, the musician, the composer as well as the author and the actor,".

There was Jean Baptiste, the poor gardener who worked on the land of a French aristocratic family. He and Marie, the adopted daughter of the family, were planning to run away to get married but both the outbreak of the French revolution and the jealous step- brother, Francois, came in between. Apart from them, there was the drunken father, the landlady, a priest, a Lithuanian revolutionary and a waitress.

We were not only watching, but also seeing the creation of an idea that was blossoming into a story that changed form every couple of minutes. Supposedly all this happened without any preparations at all.

"People also come to see it because they are amazed, they often come to me and say ‘but that wasn’t improvised was it?’ " Libby explained. "Some people came two or three times, waiting for us to repeat ourselves. They would even ask, ‘How do I get a job being the guy who gives the suggestions,’ because they can not believe it."

The majority of that night’s audience was definitely amazed, with a few exceptions of those who doubted the concept of ‘total’ improvisation, saying that even though they were delighted by the performance, they were sure the actors had their little routines, tricks and typical character roles that they would bring into the story.

"Next time I’ll propose something more specific, like Buenos Aires in the 1930s or Uruguay in 1945," said the anonymous shout. "Something not as general as the 18th century; I am almost certain they’ve have done France to death."

Other people come to see it because a lot of truth comes out; Improv theatre is something immediate for the actors, who can take the events of today and work with them in a theatrical sense that very evening.

Throughout the performance, we could see the deep emotional bond among the members of the group and the total trust that allowed them to fully explore any suggested situation. They were acting together like the works of a clock.

Outside the Late Night Jam, all of the actors are active elsewhere. "I also do a lot of other traditional performance and I see how much more afraid those actors often are, how little they use their imagination," Libby said. "When I go to see classical theatre, I want the same thing we have here, I want to be entertained perhaps; I want to learn something; I want to be involved in the story. I want what I am seeing to affect me somehow, otherwise it’s boring. So, someone who goes to an improv show wants the same thing; the atmosphere is different in that in classical theatre, everything is been prepared and the highest goal is repetition."

After an hour, the show suggested by us and created by the actors came to an end, in a glorious finale, wrapped up with a song entitled ‘I will never let you go,’ as the last rose was thrown on stage.

In fact, finding an ending is one of the most difficult tasks for the actors. It seems to be addictive, both for the people on the stage and off.

And when it’s over, it’s over.

Late Night Theater Jam

Friday, Sept. - Jun. 22:30

1st and 3rd Friday, in German,

2nd and 4th, in English.

5th Friday the ensembles combine.

Theatre Drachengasse

Fleischmarkt 22

1010 Wien

+43 650 760 7618

+43 699 1 707 7708

Other articles from this issue