Developing a challenging new format for IMPRO Amsterdam
In the past 10 years, I have developed many new impro formats for the festival. Shortform or longform, directed or not, but always with great attention to music, lighting and set design. Usually these took a lot of preparation: having tryouts, building sets, mixing music, designing a lighting plan. My latest project is a new personal record: I am working on it now, but it will not premiere until IMPRO Amsterdam 2019.
Ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis (Theatre Studies, University of Amsterdam) on the topic of the gap between scripted and improvised theatre, my mission has been to bridge that gap. This means, amongst other things, that I pay a lot of attention to set design, costume, lighting and music. Even more so, my inspiration for a new format always stems from an idea for lighting, music or sound.
For instance when I came up with the idea of creating a new Star Wars story where the 5 main characters (a princess, the hero, the hero’s mentor, the villain, the villain’s helper) all had their own spotlight. The lady at the lights decided who would meet in the next scene by putting their spots on or out. (Star Wars Illuminated, 2012).
Or when the bells of the old Amsterdam Wester Tower inspired me to make a shortform musical format where the scenes were based on actual historic facts about Amsterdam. I spent a lot of time digging into archives to find ancient pictures, and creating a set with a canal, prostitute window, and bridge. (Tales of Old Amsterdam, 2010).
And last year I was lying at a yoga class hearing the sound of rain which gave me the idea for a love story in 4 seasons with different types of rain in between to indicate the time passing by. (Promised, 2017).
Classical music and opera
Somewhere in 2017, I rode my bike through Amsterdam with Bach’s Mattheus Passion on my earphones and I wondered why we use so little classical music in improv. It would offer such great dramatic atmosphere! My mind wandered on and remembered an opera I saw with many extras on stage. These extras didn’t sing, but were portraying the citizens. Their appearance could be both supporting and threatening to the main characters. How about an improv format with, say, 60 extras?
With the size of our stage at the Amsterdam Compagnietheater, we can easily put so many people in a format. If you remove the back curtain, an even bigger stage becomes available. Put some actors of the main cast on the foreground where they improvise a single narrative, have 60 extras in the back to portray anything introduced by the actors, and add classical music. Here you go: the recipe for my new impro format. Working title: Silent Masses.
Has it been done before?
Even though I don’t think a format is only a good format if it had never been done before (don’t be original), I like the idea that this is new in the world of improv. I have seen shows with many people. I once co-directed a Disaster Movie at our festival with 20 improvisers. We had an Indian group performing a Bollywood show in which we had extra people to dance on the songs. And in 2006 in Berlin I saw a show inspired by the movie Ben Hur that included all 50 participants of the World Cup Theatresports that was taking place in Germany at the time.
I’d love to hear of any improv shows with 60 extras. If only to pick your brain on how to deal with that ridiculous number of people.
Trees, snowflakes and people
So what are these people going to do? And what is the story like?
I am thinking of a Hero’s Journey type of narrative. Where the extras can play things like:
- the trees in the dark forest where the hero is on an adventure
- the armies of the enemy
- the snowflakes in a snow storm
- the guests at a ball
And then there is the possibility of adding Ass Angels. These are improvisers on the back part of the stage who comment on the narrative by repeating/transforming sound or movement from the scene. With this abstract intervention they create an extra layer of meaning to the story. Randy Dixon (Seattle) and his Orcas Island Project have worked a lot with this, and the Slovenian group Narobov showed us this principle on our festival many years ago.
Many steps to go till 2019
Artistic Director Sven Lanser and I both felt that this idea needs time to develop. I need to recruit and train 60 extras. I need to try out the format. I need to carefully design a lighting plan that puts enough light on the back part of the stage without using so many spots that the rest of the festival formats are unlit.
So we decided to schedule this format for the 2019 edition of the festival. Probably a record in the improv world: developing a format for more than a year…
Step 1: I recently taught two mini workshops with 10 people in which I discovered:
- Context is everything: if the extras are just walking around on stage and not do anything specific, the scene in the foreground will determine the context: the extras easily turn into visitors of a shopping mall, a colony of ants or protesters during the French Revolution. The audience use their imagination and the extras don’t have to illustrate
- Less is More: if the extras want to portray a forest, it works best if everyone is a tree, instead of having trees, birds, water, bushes and insects. Don’t be original. Differents kinds of trees are nice, but if only one extra creates a very different tree this becomes very meaningful and the actors of the scene in the foreground have to justify this.
Step 2: a workshop with 30-40 improvisers on the main stage of the Compagnietheater, during the festival week. I will work with a group of experienced international improvisers on Focus, Presence, Ass Angels, Less is More and Using the space. Including lighting and music.
Step 3: if step 2 hasn’t discouraged me, I will start thinking about a way to deal with that ridiculous number of 60 extras. I am considering using group leaders: 6 leaders with their own group of 10. It might just become the world’s largest Diamond Dance!
Step 47: première at IMPRO Amsterdam 2019!