Improvising History

The latest piece by The English Lovers, the former ExPat literary circle who have blossomed into Vienna’s leading theater troupe

On The Town | Philippa Hohenzollern | April 2011

It was already dark outside when I entered the Theater in der Drachengasse, on a hidden side street off the Fleischmarkt in Vienna’s 1st District. Sliding in passed the thicket at the small bar area to the right, I followed the center aisle and found a seat somewhere in the middle of the intimate theater. The raised stage area is completely unadorned, and seemed so tiny that I seriously began to wonder how a proper performance would be possible with such little space available. Still, the atmosphere was laid back, with people gathered chatting around the bar, so I settled in to wait for the show to begin.

This was my first visit to The English Lovers, the former ExPat literary circle who, from their beginnings with staged readings of drama and poetry, have blossomed into Vienna’s leading improvisational theater troupe.

Suddenly the door closes loudly and, as the lights go out in the room, the stage spots come up on four actors and a piano player, all wearing black. "Good evening everyone, we are the English Lovers." It is to be, as always, a night of invention. "What we’re going to do, we’re going to do with you."

The way Historyonics works is that members of the audience, selected at random, get to choose a "bundle" of attributes, which will then decide the period of time in history and the genre of the show to follow. In this case, the result was a romantic drama in 1940 and with the help of the audience, the actors created a list of ideas to include in the acts. The list alone drew laughter from the crowd, with themes from "lost lovers" to "tears and jealousy" and of course World War II, the defining situation of the period.

The play begins with one of the actors reading a short paragraph from a history book. Then the lights go down again and the piano begins to play a soft romantic melody. As the stage lights up for the second time, we are introduced to the first scene, in a café in New York City in 1940. The two women sitting in the café are a mother and her daughter discussing family matters and, although the actors are using no props or costumes besides two of the same bent-wood chairs the audience members are sitting on, they manage to make the scenes and settings appear lively and real through their gestures and language.

Since the play included a number of different characters, three of the actors took over more than one role. Kathy Tanner especially managed to slip seamlessly from one character into another with astonishing ease. She seemed the oldest and most experienced of the group that evening, and was particularly funny playing both the ingénue working at an advertising agency as well as the role of a caring but clumsy mother, bouncy and relentlessly optimistic, a case study in compensation.

The following scene introduced us to two men working in the ad agency thinking up slogans to use for a cigarette commercial. "Lucky Strike – it’s toasted," one of them says proudly, only to hear his partner reply "Toasted? Like bread? Who would want something that’s toasted?" The audience starts laughing anew and the gentle sound of the piano transitions to the next scene in Central Park, where the unsuccessful writer Isabella and Julian, another ambitious ad exec, meet.  Julian introduces Isabella to one of his partners, Jonathan, whom she immediately feels attracted to.

Although most of the acting is freely improvised, this scene suggests that research lies behind the skits, for instance knowing which tobacco brands already existed in 1940, and even how they were promoted. "It’s toasted!" was part of an actual Lucky’s campaign, but from the 1960s not the 40s, but has joined the current vocabulary from its resurrection on the hit TV series Mad Men – probably its provenance in this case.  So was it an anachronism? Yes. But did it work in the scene? Absolutely. Gestures and body language captured the sex roles of the period – many familiar from the movies – and some, like the ambiance of smoking at the café as a way of staging a pause in the conversation, so characteristic of the time and place. Nowadays, of course, this would be unthinkable in the United States.

We also get to meet Isabella’s parents, who are clearly worried about their daughter’s future but at the same time, don’t seem to take her very seriously. When Isabella invites them over for dinner, her father warns his wife, "I want to leave there at nine at the latest. She’s only our daughter, not Roosevelt." He seems harsh, but with a very dry sense of humor. "What do you think she’s cooked for us," Mrs. Thomson asks her husband. "Not much," he replies implying that Isabella can simply not afford to serve them a filling meal, since she has not achieved anything yet.

Overall, the conversations between Isabella’s parents made the audience laugh the most. During another argument, Mr. Thomson, clearly the dominant partner as most men were during the 40s, asks his wife "What’s wrong with our marriage?"

"Nothing after five," she quips; their marriage is great once they start drinking. And don’t really have to deal with each other any more. After the first few acts, the scenes start to make sense and establish a connection to one another.

From a romantic point of view, though, the performance was going well – almost too well. When Isabella finally succeeds as a writer and things become more settled with her parents, I expected a happy ending. But where would the drama be, if the story were to finish here? Everything seems to be more than perfect, until Isabella finds out that she is suffering from cancer and has only a few more weeks to live. She shares the bad news with Jonathan while out flying a kite together. As with most other scenes, the smooth and quiet sound of the piano in the background adjusts the mood, and to the mood, filling in for the missing sets and costumes.

And then, toward, suddenly, characters start to change, and Isabella, for example, who behaved so irresponsible at the beginning of the play, eventually proves to be calm and settled despite her current situation. Or Mr. Thomson, the seemingly cold-hearted father, ultimately turns out to be a thoughtful and sensitive parent.

The last scene, where we see Isabella in her hospital bed ready to say her goodbyes, is one of the strongest. With the dim light on stage, their strong facial expressions and dramatic voices, it feels very cinematic, like watching a movie in a theater. The performance ends with an "Isabella, I love you," and the stopping of her heartbeat.

Tragic? Well, not really. It sounds heart breaking, but the English Lovers managed to keep the audience laughing once more, as it takes Isabella four tries before she finally manages to die, and we are treated to a death scene satire of comic exaggeration, that appeared even more improvised than any other so far.

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