Taking improv to the fringes at Paper Street Theatre.
BY DAVID LENNAM
There’s the improv you know and the improv you don’t know. Victoria’s Dave Morris will introduce you to the latter.
The 41-year-old founding artistic director of Paper Street Theatre is moving improv into theatrical territory, letting his troop riff on everyone from Tennessee Williams to Quentin Tarantino.
Improvisational acting is typically identified with TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the sort of loosely competitive Theatresports games that promise a quick and easy laugh.
But Morris understands there’s more value in stretching the structure well beyond what many would think of as its breaking point. Paper Street is delivering a rare brand of long-form improv built around a narrative style. Think a full play that’s entirely made up, with sound and lighting design, even an intermission.
This takes improv far beyond the expected skewering of clichés and tropes, even farther than standard long-form structure such as the Harold improv method, which was first performed in 1967 and introduces characters and themes, allowing them to recur in a series of connected scenes.
I guess you could say of Morris, the play’s the thing, where the story follows one protagonist through to the end. And in that, he’s trying to honour the style of whatever the improv play is about, rather than mocking it or doing a parody.
“If there’s comedy in what we do, it doesn’t come from us making fun of Jane Austen,” says Morris. “It comes from us screwing up. The joke should never be at the style’s expense. The best laugh for me is from perfect recognition, where you come up with the best character name that actually sounds like a Jane Austen name, like Thomas Bumbercount, and everyone laughs.”
And they laugh because of how perfect it was, not because you made fun of Jane Austen, adds Morris.
Actor Christina Patterson, a veteran of more than 20 shows with Paper Street, explains that long-form doesn’t rely on gags.
“When you’re doing short-form improv, you know you’re going to walk out on stage, you’re going to do something silly and fun, you’re going to get a bunch of laughs and you’re going to walk off,” she says.
Long form, however, means studying the source material, knowing the style to present it in and rehearsing even though there are no scripted lines. Patterson says it’s more about setting the nuances of the author or genre, “so when you get on stage and you tell that story from the beginning to the end in, say, an hour and 15 minutes, you want the audience to think that they’re watching something that was written by that person or directed by that person.
“Sometimes,” she adds, “it’s heartbreaking and sometimes it’s hilarious. But a lot of the time the comedy comes out of the fact that the audience is watching you take their suggestions and turn them into Shakespearean language or turn it into a Jane Austen.”
Morris says he tells his performers that, given the choice between funny and beautiful, to always choose beautiful.
“Choose the beautiful moment because the funny moments will happen. I don’t need you to make this audience laugh. I need you to make good art.”
The form he works breathes rarefied air. Patterson says the only people she knows who are presenting works this way have been trained by Morris.
Simply put, it’s hard to do, and it requires immense focus, practice, training and rehearsal.
“Improv’s on the fringe of theatre and Paper Street is on the fringe of improv,” Morris says.
“I’m trying to get as fringy as I can.”
Considering he does improv based on Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Martin McDonagh, I joke about his audience being made up of pipe-smoking, eccentric intellectuals, the leather-elbow-patch set, maybe a roomful of Bertrand Russells.
I’m not too far off. A bit tongue-in-cheek, Morris reveals his ideal audience is, basically, his sound designer, Dan Godlovitch, who has a PhD in applied mathematics, builds digital instruments and makes really abstract, obscure electronic music.
“That’s my ideal audience,” he laughs. “Super-pretentious artists, that’s who I’m aiming at.”
Morris has intentionally guided Paper Street through two phases. The first was a decade of simple genre work (film noir, science fiction, Christmas classics, zombie movies, Wes Anderson, Edgar Allan Poe). The second, which is happening now, is to take what they’ve learned from those genres and apply it to other works.
“I’ve always tried to push improv to that level of theatre, a little cerebral and artsy, to challenge people a little bit more. Next year, one of the shows I want to do is a Sylvia Plath-inspired show.”
I ask him what the coming evolutionary leap for Paper Street might be.
“It’s funny to think of what’s the end point? Like people thinking their goal is to get to retirement so they can spend the rest of their days on a beach. Me, I don’t. Improv is not a product; it’s not a thing. It’s a process. And I’ve always been process-focused as opposed to product. I don’t care about the thing at the end. I focus on the activity and action of doing it. That’s where I get the love of life that comes from doing things, making stuff. For me, it’s like I don’t see an end point ’cause there’s always more stuff to make and further to go.”
He’s got a huge grin and he starts to laugh. “I guess the end point, I’ll die.”