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The Wishing Tree
Director/Producer: Christine Brooks
Creator: Rama Nicholas (Impro Melbourne)
Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT)

at BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
From 8 Dec 2009 to 12 Dec 2009

Reviewed by John Smythe, 9 Dec 2009

Improv groups are always looking for new ways to create shows predicated on the basic principle that dramatic interactions, inspired by randomly selected input from the audience, are conjured from nothing before our very eyes. 

The Wishing Tree format, created at an Impro Melbourne Festival, was first transplanted to Wellington during the 2009 New Zealand Improv Festival with a one-off show comprising performers from troupes across New Zealand and Australia. Now the Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) has revived it for the festive season.

Based on an ancient Japanese myth (click on the title above to see more), it asserts that this happens to be the day of the year that is most auspicious for wishes to be granted by the gods. As we enter the theatre we are invited to write our most heartfelt wish on a piece of paper and hang in on the wishing tree - which then gets brought into the performing space to start the show.

Tip: for best results, take the time to write legibly or your offer will get mangled.

Each performer randomly selects a wish from the tree, one is read out provoking instant action and interaction from whoever chooses to run with it; then another, and another ... Thus a selection of improvised stories begin to unfold. And once a few have been established, they randomly return for their next evolutionary stage, at the instigation of one of the actors.

It becomes quite a feat, for performers and audience alike, to keep track of who is being whom in which scenario.

All the while cellist Sebastian Morgan-Lynch adds mood music and sfx, and one of the team at the lighting board illuminates the action with sensitivity. Some of the performers need to learn how to find their light, however. To often legs and torsos feature more than faces.

Sometimes a story will be revitalised when an actor, who has not previously been involved in it, becomes its narrator, not so much dictating the action as raising questions that refresh the actors' inspiration. As always there is a fine line between contributing and controlling. The assertive offering of constructive contribution is crucial. Conversely being a wimp or leaving your colleagues to flounder when you could offer help is a no-no.  

The cumulative effect is of a soap opera juggling multiple plot-lines, or - given the discrete nature of each story - perhaps it's more like stop-start flicking between a number of recorded dramas. When the instigator feels a scenario has done its dash, they ceremoniously tear up the piece of paper that started it all, announcing, "The story of this wish has ended."

Opening night produced (amongst others) a granddad seeking serenity amid rumbustious grandchildren; the poignant tale of a woman waiting in vain for 'him' to propose; an always-late man who never had enough time, for his wife especially; a queuing couple hoping to meet Lady Gaga, which evolved into a stalking ex-girlfriend story (with the meeting and the requirement to include a pair of jumping stilts only just integrated); a couple in a retirement home seeking to reignite their passion for love and creativity ...

Someone's wish for "a unified qualifications framework" got an instant laugh from the audience and inspired a short and punchy satirical sketch in which an education machine spat out well-measured but un-questing robotic students.

A lengthy wish involving someone's Nana being able to live forever in a mortgage-free house provoked a scenario which nearly got derailed because the manic Nana wouldn't stop talking, leaving the poor bloke at her door - from the electricity lines company - unable to contribute, or that's how it seemed to me. But his, "We have to take your house," was all the stronger for being almost all he said. A cat contributed a menacing presence and ubiquitous portraits of Nana's dead husband inspired a twist that suddenly elevated it into a dark tale of ruthless survival.

The avowed aim of the Wishing Tree format is to "allow people to reflect on their desires and wishes in a fun, open way" and to move beyond the comedy version of a one night stand. "The Wishing Tree creates improvised theatre that I want to remember in the morning," is how director Christine Brooks explains it.

When a wish is heart-felt rather than a jokey challenge, the result can be as efficacious playback theatre because we have a greater sense of individual and collective ownership.

On opening night a number of scenarios did succeed in creating realistic characters whose fate we came to care about as they confronted barriers to desires with which we could readily empathise. Perhaps this is why an invited couple - who clearly had not clocked the implications of the Wellington Improvisation Troupe's name, let alone the mechanics of this show's set up - opined that it was pretty good and wanted to know who had written it.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 

See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 John Smythe (2)
 Lori Leigh