BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

20/10/2017 - 20/10/2017

NZ Improv Festival 2017

Production Details

We’re all afraid of something, whether we let on or not. What are you afraid of? Are you brave enough to see it come to life?

Some shows help dispel your fears by making light of them. Don’t See This Show Alone will rationalise your fears by justifying them to everyone else. Bring someone you can clutch tightly when the lights go out.

Don’t See This Show Alone is part of our Spontaneous Showcase, where five experienced directors present their work with a cast of festival participants brought together for one night only. Across the week every cast, crew, and production will come together in unique combinations, creating spontaneous comedy and theatre every single night. With these incredible improvisors and directors from all around New Zealand (and the world!), you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime treat every time.

“…complex, involving immediacy..” — Theatreview

BATS Theatre
Friday 20 October 2017

Theatre , Improv ,

1 hr

Has a lot of potential

Review by James McKinnon 21st Oct 2017

People sometimes ask how you can review improvised performance, given that the content one critiques is never repeated for subsequent audiences. Don’t See This Show Alone offers a great example to answer this question, by focusing not on the unique improvisations that emerge from a single performance, but the innovative framework, devised by Matt Powell and Moll Olio.

Creativity is not produced by ‘freedom’ but by working within constraints: the limitations imposed by rhyme and meter, for example, are what make sonnets an interesting medium of expression for both poets and their readers.

The most basic and fundamental constraint of improv is that the actors must use suggestions from the audience, and when MC Matt Powell begins the show, he asks us to reflect on and then say aloud the things we fear the most, invoking the first and foremost of the innovative provocations Don’t See This Show Alone deploys to challenge the performers and pique our curiosity: unlike most improvised theatre, it focuses on serious rather than ludicrous content.

As the programme says, “Some shows help dispel your fears by making light of them. Don’t See This Show Alone will rationalise your fears by justifying them to everyone else.”

After indulging in our first and inevitably silly responses (“Monday mornings, heh!”), Powell asks us to dig a little deeper, and as the darker offers begin to emerge from the audience (“He was never seen again”), a chorus of 11 actors clad in black assembles on the stage, each member of which chooses one of the offers heard from the audience, and repeats it back to us in a creepy chorus of whispers.

The explicit arousal of fear is supported by other departures from the theatrical conventions of improv: instead of encouraging the audience to make a lot of noise, Powell’s introduction establishes a sombre tone and even invites spectators to leave if they get too frightened; the lights flicker and go dark instead of bright as the actors assemble; the musician just scowls at us menacingly instead of playing the actors on with light music. We are primed for chills and thrills, not just laughter.

The chorus constitutes the next of Don’t See This Show Alone’s formal innovations. Most improvised formats involve a small number of performers, all of whom have equal status and the same function, although they might be divided into teams. PlayShop Live, for example, features only four actors per performance. Don’t See This Show Alone fills the Dome with 15 performers and a musician. The black costumes distinguish the chorus visibly from four principal performers who wear street clothes, marking them as the central characters. The chorus members often become supporting characters, but their most important (and innovative) function is to play the environment. At the top of the show, for example, they form the walls and furniture that the principal actors immediately recognize and designate as the conventional ‘Cabin in the Woods’ horror setting.

Throughout the show, the principals play four friends who try to scare each other with spooky stories, and the chorus helps transport us back and forth between these and the primary (cabin in the woods) setting. Each story builds on one of the audience’s offers, and in doing so it projects one of the four ‘main’ characters into the second layer of fiction (in the manner of a cinematic dream sequence or flashback), while the other principals become narrators, and the chorus becomes (and populates) the new setting.

When acting as narrators, the principal actors use the second person, a subtle but highly effective technique for creating a visceral link between the spectator and the protagonist. When the narrator says, “The vines tighten their grip on you,” for example, “you” addresses both the character who is caught in the vines, and the spectator, who is grammatically implicated into emotional identification with the character. At the same time, this statement is also an instruction to the chorus, which of course is playing the vines. When the chorus and the actor respond to the narrative prompt, the spectator can almost feel the vines gripping them.

This purely verbal technique is equivalent to the cinematic technique of horror films, which use the eye of the camera to make us feel like we are seeing through the eyes of the character. An improv show that provokes horror instead of laughter is a neat idea, but this clever technique of using second-person narration to project the spectator into the body and psyche of the victim is the key to making it work.

The chorus is Don’t See This Show Alone’s double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a remarkably versatile asset. The chorus can become anything and anywhere the actors name; alternatively, they can make an offer, and the actors can name what they think they see, like when Alayne Dick points to a chorus member and says, “Can we talk about why your uncle has an actual stuffed, mounted bear in his cabin?” Functioning as an ensemble to represent the environment (a cabin, a forest, a desolate coastline), the chorus at its best brings to mind the spooky stylings of Mary Wigman’s expressionist choreography, and helps the performance to reach its goal of actually frightening us.

But the sheer size of the chorus also presents a liability. As an improv performer, you want (and are trained) to jump in with offers to drive the story forward, but you are also conscious that the other actors are acting on the same impulses. Reacting to offers is as important as making them, but if two or more performers make offers simultaneously, the remaining actors have to choose who to react to (or worse, they cannot clearly comprehend an ‘offer’ from the chaos). This disrupts momentum and stalls the action, so improvisers learn to be wary of stepping on each other’s offers, but the more actors are sharing the stage with you, the greater the probability that two or more will jump in simultaneously.

In Don’t See This Show Alone, there are too many moments where the action stalls, not only because the actors are stepping on each other’s offers, but sometimes because their desire to avoid stepping on each other creates hesitation. The performance is unable to generate suspense, or build the pattern of rising tension and sudden release typical of horror films and ghost stories, because the sheer size of the ensemble seems to impose a static pace, which feels spooky at first but without variation eventually becomes monotonous. It seems as though individual chorus members also feel wary of making offers because it might disrupt the unity of the chorus or the conceptual chorus/principal role division. Even the musician seems hesitant, and the levels on the keyboard are very low, so she is unable to use music to manipulate the pace and tempo effectively.

The programme boasts that the cast of Don’t See This Show Alone is “brought together for one night only” which amplifies the problem of hesitation and crossed signals, because the actors are clearly not used to working together. Choral unity gradually dissolves as the more experienced actors shoulder more and more of the load while others become almost paralysed or seem content to retreat to the margins of the stage and be a wall. Not the funny kind of wall, like in the Pyramus and Thisbe bit in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; just a person in black tights, trying too desperately to hide in plain sight upstage left, their grim expression betraying a dawning awareness that they have struck an ever-so-slightly awkward and contrived pose which is not only drawing the very attention they had hoped to evade, but is also becoming increasingly uncomfortable and difficult to maintain. Ironically, the chorus members who do the least became increasingly conspicuous for that very reason, as one begins to wonder, “Is that person going to just wait for the right moment for the whole show?” 

This format has a lot of potential, but on this night the monotonous pace and hesitation prevents it from reaching this potential. There are perhaps two or three rewarding moments where one can feel a chill sweeping through the entire audience. Dick and the other principals also generate many moments of comic genius (sometimes at the expense of the rising tension needed to generate horror). The notion of improvised theatre oriented to provoking fear in addition to laughter deserves more exploration, as does the role of the chorus.

I would love to see this show (alone or otherwise) again, after its creators do a bit of fine tuning to address the problems caused by the size of the ensemble and the apparent ambiguity about the relative status and responsibilities of chorus members and principals. 


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