If you think “improv” and envision Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you need to visit the 16th Phoenix Improv Festival International Thursday, April 20, to Saturday, April 22, at the Herberger Theatre Center. There, for four shows over three days, ensembles of unscripted actors from nine countries will go well beyond the bounds of obvious gags.
“There’s nothing wrong with that kind of improv,” assures Bill Binder, festival producer. “Being funny in short skits is one valid part of it. But the long form does a lot more than that.”
The “long form” can go from 15 minutes to 90 minutes, and include some very serious displays of unscripted acting. The art of creating characters and situations on the spot leaves no aspect of human experience untouched. Actors can be called on to recreate moments of trauma or despair or lovesickness as much as instances of hilarity.
Nor do the differences stop there. The actors who make improv their lives have a different attitude toward the lack of a script.
“The idea in Whose Line is It? is that the lack of script is an impediment and let’s show how clever we can be, filling in that gap. We look at the lack of script, not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity,” Binder says.
The opportunity is one of emotional openness, he says.
“If I am an actor in Our Town or Into the Woods, I need to stick to the words written for me,” Binder explains. “If I am profoundly moved in one of those situations, I may not be able to bring that out in the words I’m given. But as an unscripted actor, the emotions and vulnerability we feel go right into what we say and do. It’s the difference between creating real emotions, and just re-creating them in one performance after another.”
Binder spends most of his time globe-trotting to participate in the more than 60 improv festivals in North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. The phenomenon is growing in South America and even the Middle East. For the Phoenix festival, actors from Ireland, Canada, Australia, the United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey will be in residency for one week before they take their art to the public.
“Unscripted acting takes years of training, just like any other craft. If you’re on stage with an actor you’ve known for 20 seconds, playing a couple that’s been together 60 years, you need to have honed your skills and acting practices,” Binder points out.
How do the actors get the ideas for the characters and situations that spark their improvised journeys?
“The most common way is to ask he audience for suggestions,” Binder notes. “The actors will ask, ‘What’s on your mind right now? What affects you?’ Or they will just ask for a noun, a single noun, and they’ll personify that.”
The word can be common, and still unleash a torrent of emotions and associations.
“Suppose the word is ‘pencil,’” he says. “It’s a writing implement, yes, but it’s also something that’s kind of out of the past, something that’s outlived its usefulness.”
The situation allows the actor to explore what it feels like to be out of date—in a serious way.
Although not all the groups in the Phoenix event are from countries where the main language is other than English, all the troupes will perform in English, which has become a de facto international language. Binder has, however, found himself in countries that did not use English—sometimes to amusing effect.
“I was once in a show in France where everyone had to speak French. Beyond ‘bonjour’ and ‘oui,’ I don’t have any French, so it was challenging. I had to use eye contact and physicality and, just through that, I was able to react emotionally,” he recalls.
Binder promises that the nine companies will have different approaches.
“Some use music, some electronics, another uses animated gifs to inspire them,” he says.
The bottom line for improvising actors is pretty much the same as for all of us in reality: We make it up as we go along. The major contrast might lie in the actors’ need to do something we often forget in daily life: “On stage with other actors and no script, you really need to listen and hear what other people say.”
Phoenix Improv Festival International, Herberger Theatre Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, 602.252.8497, phoeniximprovfestival.com, Thursday, April 20, to Saturday, April 22, $10-$20.