Artists and writers are familiar with this swimming-around-in-the-dark thing, the murky sensation of uncertainty that lurks almost unavoidably in the brutal and enthralling sea of creativity. It’s the part of the process that artists ordinarily don’t want you to see. For good reason, they prefer to present you with something only after it’s achieved clarity. Even a writer like Harold Pinter, infamous for his open-ended meanings, presents his plays in a finely honed verbal and structural precision.
And then there’s “Script Tease,” the improv series at the Brody Theater that insists swimming blind is the fun part. Judging by the packed house for Saturday night’s edition, a lot of people agree. And although I wouldn’t want to watch it every night of the week, I’m inclined to concur. Improv is big internationally (director Domeka Parker got the idea for “Script Tease” when she saw something similar in Amsterdam) but it seems especially suited to Portland, where so much of the city’s creative life is played out in a petri dish of experiment and improvisation. The observation that Portland political life is besotted with process is equally true of its artistic life. We’re a city of creative tinkerers, and occasional finishers.
Here’s the setup: Hire a writer. (On Saturday, it was the provocative and talented Steve Patterson, author of “The Centering,” “Lost Wavelengths,” “Altered States of America,” and many others.) Have him or her write just six pages of dialogue, introducing the characters and providing a barebones setup. Then let the actors wing it. Without a safety net. Nobody – not the actors, or writer, or director, or audience – knows where the thing’s going or how it’s going to get there. As Parker said before the show, it could turn out great, or “it could be really bad.”
Patterson’s mini-script, “Urbex,” was appropriately slim and suggestive. Three teenagers – self-styled “urban explorers” – break into an abandoned hospital, mainly because it’s there. Inside, they meet and clash with three squatters who claim the territory as their own. The end – of the written stuff. What evolved from there was a hectic mash of ghost story, escape-and-capture, Charlie Manson-style pack mentality, and a couple of recurring jokes. It was far from a polished play, but that wasn’t the point. The thrill came from watching a half-dozen actors hang over a cliff and somehow scramble clumsily to safety.
As Patterson noted approvingly afterwards, what the improv actors created was a lot like the process a writer goes through in creating characters and a storyline. Something’s unleashed. Surprises abounded. One actor was shocked to learn that Patterson had conceived of her character as God. And Patterson was tickled by where the improvisers took his rough concept: “I walked in not knowing what to expect and walked out with a possible new play idea.”
It works that way sometimes with improv, Parker says: playwrights facing a block will have some improv actors pick up from where they’re stuck, and see where they can take it. Most of the time what comes out of the exercise doesn’t “solve” the problem in terms of providing fresh dialogue or a particular plot turn. Instead, it unblocks the ideas and helps the writer move ahead.
Pulling something like this off requires actors who are comfortable in both traditional theater and improvisation. The Brody team of Adrienne Flagg, Beau Brusseau, Brett Wilson, Chris Williams, Parker, Jess Lee, Kerry Leek, Nicole Virginia Accuardi and Tom Johnson is adept at thinking on its collective feet, and unafraid of occasionally falling on its face – absolutely necessary attributes of successful improvisational theater. Sara Jean Accuardi is the script curator, choosing which pieces the “Script Tease” squad will do, and deciding on whether they’ll be one-act or full-length pieces. She’s the only person besides the authors themselves who sees the six-page scripts in advance. Complicating matters further, the audiences decide on the spot which actors should play which characters. Saturday night’s crowd was very much into gender-bending, an added complication that slipped the actors’ minds only occasionally.
A show like this also requires a playwright who’s willing and eager to be flexible. Unlike the famously dictatorial Lillian Hellman, who hated actors or directors changing anything once she’d written it (she once quoted Dashiell Hammett saying to her, “The truth is you don’t like the theater except the times when you’re in a room by yourself, putting the play on paper”) Patterson seems to love the what-ifs. Theater is, after all, a collaborative process. It begins with the script, which maintains primacy. But a good script, like a good song, can have many interpretations, and the idea of improvisation – of balancing and rebalancing and shifting rhythms and design elements and even ideas – is crucial to the assembly of any production.
“Script Tease” just strips the script out of the process, like a prestidigitator whipping a tablecloth out from under a loaded dinner table. As I walked out of the theater Saturday night, I noticed a sign on the window explaining what “Brody” means:
- A suicidal daredevil leap; wild dive; to do a brody from a high ledge.
- A severe vehicular skid.
After Steve Brody, who claimed that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886.
I looked it up. Nobody’s sure the self-promoting Brody (or Brodie, as many sources have it) actually made the leap. But if he did, he survived.
The next edition of “Script Tease” is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 23, at Brody Theater, 16 N.W. Broadway, Portland. Ticket info here.