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

at BATS - return season, Wellington
From 20 Nov 2012 to 24 Nov 2012

Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 21 Nov 2012

The Wishing Tree, developed by Melbourne improviser Rama Nicolas and based on a Japanese myth, is not only fun but also a clever format for a long-form improvised show.  

Unlike short-form improvisational theatre, or Theatresports, where a show is made up of series of brief, unrelated scenes based on predetermined games, long-form is typically a series of scenes that are interwoven by plot, character, and/or theme. 

There are many structures that can be applied to long-form improvisation and often a very enjoyable aspect of seeing a long-form show is the format. (Many long-running troupes and theatres have signature long-form structures such as MUSICAL! the musical, a two act completely improvised Broadway-style musical, or the quintessential Harold, performed at Chicago's IO and at the Upright Citizen's Brigade.)

Nicolas's The Wishing Tree is inspired by the Japanese Tanabata where people write their true wishes anonymously, hang them on a bamboo tree, and hope the gods will answer them. Here, the audience becomes the wishers and the improvisers, the gods. 

In the foyer of BATS Theatre audience members write their wishes on slips of paper, and the wishes hang on a tree on stage. Using only two white pieces of fabric as masking and a few brown crates, the actors randomly pick wishes to fulfil through improvisation.  WIT (Wellington Improvisation Troupe) has utilised The Wishing Tree format for multiple return seasons of a holiday-inspired show. 

Part of the fun is the various points-of-view on wishing itself. On opening night, the wishes ranged from heartfelt to absurd. Scenes were created around wishes such as I wish . . . “dinosaurs were friendly and alive”, “the press reported the facts”, and “my cat would stop catching wetas, mice, etc.” 

The ensemble should be applauded for the bravado and enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into each wish.  Particularly nice was their use of space. The performers created interesting compositions and also were not afraid to quickly clamber up to the upper-level door in BATS mid-scene to fashion a surprise entrance.

Though the show began with much laughter and an engaged audience, it did seem to fizzle out midway. The ask-for (suggestion) that consumed most of the show's time and thus the actors' energies was “I wish Wellington really were Middle Earth.” This transformed into a series of scenes about a hobbit on Cuba Street, with John Key as an antagonist. It ended in a rather predictable place with a “gay shirt” joke.  Though current events are great material for comedy, here nothing novel was offered and the comedy felt forced and strained. In a long-form show with such a brilliant structure and a clearly talented cast I had hoped for more grounding, relationships, connection, and truth in comedy.

That this was somewhat of a struggle on opening night as evidenced by blocked offers (such as a pair of glasses thrown onstage and neglected in a scene inspired by the plight of man who wants to be as attractive as glasses-wearing men) and a lack of relationships in scenework.

Another time, a wish to “be a rapper in Victorian England” was read. Energetically the entire cast stormed the stage to a self-created beat.  The group energy was nothing short of dynamic and hilarious lines surfaced such as “Darcy, a bit of an arsy” and “Horse and carriage mother fucker”.  Again, though, a single player took the brunt of the rap and without much support it quickly dissipated. This was a missed opportunity to share verses and end the rap climatically. 

Sometimes unnoticed in improv, the technical elements of the show were a highlight. The troupe was accompanied by a Cellist (Sebastian Morgan-Lynch) who did an excellent job of spontaneously adding atmosphere to the scenes. The lighting operator (Ashlyn Smith) was also on-her-toes in following the actors (even at the upper-level) with her lights.

Finally, it was nice to have the middle aisle removed at BATS for a sense of cohesion among the audience, especially useful in a type of theatre that aims to be totally interactive.

The Wishing Tree is an exciting long-form improv, played by an energetic group of actors. Opening night was somewhat uneven but no doubt the team will solidify its ensemble playing in the nights to come.  
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 John Smythe
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 John Smythe (2)