The NZ Improv Festival 2011

BATS Theatre, Wellington

11/10/2011 - 15/10/2011

Production Details

Back for its fourth year – bigger, edgier, funnier and ready to tackle Wellington with awesomeness.

Bringing together companies from around the country (and across the seas), the NZ Improv Festival showcases the best that New Zealand has to offer in improvisational theatre.

Over five jam-packed days, be surprised, entertained and even moved by these purveyors of on-the-spot creation, as they tread the high wire between genius and disaster. This Festival is New Zealand’s only annual event dedicated to changing the way you see spontaneous. Don’t miss it!

Featuring: The Court Jesters (CHCH), WIT (WGTN), Chicken Legs Theatre (AKL), Rebecca De Unamuno (Sydney) and special guest Jason Geary (Melbourne) 

Check out the full programme below!

Tues 11 Oct  
6.30pm – NZIF Unplugged: Sink or Swim
8.00pm – Rebecca De Unamuno is… Open to suggestion
9.30pm – Up Against Improv presents: L.O.V.E

Wed 12 Oct   
6.30pm – The Court Jesters present: The Directors
8.00pm – WIT presents: CSI Wainui
9.30pm – Chicken Legs Theatre presents: Velcro Impro

Thurs 13 Oct
6.30pm – Jason Geary directs: Spoken (Created by Randy Dixon)
8.00pm – Up Against Improv presents: L.O.V.E
9.30pm – WIT presents The Polaroid Players in: The Long Weekend (world premiere)

Fri 14 Oct   
6.30pm – Chicken Legs Theatre presents: Velcro Impro  
8.00pm – Rebecca De Unamuno is… Open to suggestion
9.30pm – The Court Jesters present: The Directors
11.00pm – NZIF Unplugged: Late Night Tales      

Sat 15 Oct  
11.00am – Fairy Tale Cookbook  
1.00pm – The Improvisers present: A Knight To Remember   
6.30pm – Jason Geary’s How Bout This   
8.00pm – NZIF Unplugged: To Be Continued   
9.30pm – NZIF Unplugged: Directed by Rebecca De Unamuno  

For more details, go to: 

Season: Tuesday 11th October Saturday 15th October 2011
Time: 6.30 / 8pm / 9.30 / Friday Late Show 11pm
Price: $17 Full / $13 Concession / Three Show Pass $30/$40
Length: 1hr min 
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Energy and enthusiasm beats ineffectual limpness

Review by Caoilinn Hughes 17th Oct 2011

[Note: This replaces the review posted yesterday, now that performers’ names have been made available.]

Saturday was the last day of the Improv Festival at BATS, and I caught a couple of shows during the day: the wonderfully envisioned, passionate and inventive The Fairytale Cookbook (measured to perfection by Jason Geary); the less inventive, less challenging to children’s intelligence and less memorable A Knight To Remember by The Improvisers; and another of Jason Geary’s tried and tested improvisational formats in How Bout This – a sensational saturnalia of give and take that gives and gives.

The highlight of Saturday’s shows in my opinion was Geary’s The Fairytale Cookbook. As the name might suggest, is aimed at children, so I didn’t come prepared with tissues for the tears of laughter that were induced.

What a brilliant format. You get a ‘menu’ of ingredients for the oddball fairytales that are going to be cooked on stage. The menu includes such unexpected fairytale heroes as ‘the floating skull’, ‘the bird man’, ‘the ringmaster’ and ‘the singing bush’. The kids in the audience (and the kids such as myself who disguise themselves as adults) get to choose the ingredients for the actors to anthropomorphise, and boy are these festival players adept at anthropomorphisation.

There wasn’t one weak link in the performances here. They feed each other with energy, enthusiasm and great ideas; epitomising the kind of improv that makes an Improv Festival sound like a good idea. Hamish Parkinson was my personal favourite, particularly as a dexterous, career-driven monkey whose tail has a mind of its own. Eli Matthewson is lovely, lively, likeable; especially as a young boy who decides to take his magical pet fish (played with some fantastic facial expressions by Wiremu Tuhiwai) to school in his water-filled schoolbag.

Nicky Hill’s commitment to satisfying the audience’s desire for an ever-more-scary witch is brilliant: she writhes in witchyness from her eyebrows to her fingertips to the farthest reaches of her voicebox. Hill has contributed some fantastic ideas and energy to each festival performance I’ve seen her in; a natural comic actress and improv artist.

There’s a real commitment to imaginative possibilities in this show that does justice to the child’s mind.  It is this kind of creativity and commitment that is missing from The Improvisors’ A Knight To Remember. The only thing that works hard in this show is the title.

The format of the show amounts to a bumbling idiot Knight (played rather idly by Richard Falkner) who loses his memory being followed about by a Jester (Pete Doile, who relies on his costume for his humour), in the quest to recover his memory. The characters the Knight encounters on his journey (all played by Ian Harcourt) complicate the quest by making bizarre demands of him, which send him lumbering around the world chasing his tail. The show uses the device of a song to help the Knight remember what he needs to get and what the quest is for in the first place.

The children in the audience contribute a few ideas to the show, allowing for rare moments of excitement. For instance, the combined suggestion of a goat-car-aeroplane to get to Europe, which audience members come onstage to represent, is good fun. The format of the show itself is not the problem – I can see how it could work well.

The problem is in the commitment of the actors to challenge, excite and inspire their audience. Children make for the most forgiving and the most challenging audience you can have. They demand energy. They forgive cliché. They demand humour. They forgive predictable slapstick. The children on Saturday were very forgiving indeed. But even they stopped finding it amusing when Falkner pulled out his foam sword for the millionth time and fumbled about trying to get it back in his belt. There’s nothing worse than a performer relying on his one prop for comic value. It’s a lazy and ineffectual as the limp foam sword itself.

As if sensing there was a lack of intelligence about the performance, Harcourt forgot the children entirely and just aimed inappropriately for adult laughs with his impersonation of a French lamp-seller who complains about the fall of the Euro and makes half-cooked jokes about Sarkozy’s relationships with maids.

Moving on, Jason Geary delights as Director/ convener / MC again in How Bout This – a very true-to-form improv show where the players take the spotlight to pitch scene ideas, which either get taken up by the other players or get politely dismissed. Great fun, great ideas, great performances, great energy.

Performances worth mentioning in particular were Jason Geary himself, as a sleazy gambler and later as a sleazy detective fisherman (if I remember correctly!). He had some fantastic one-liners and his comic timing was spot on. One of the best moments of the evening was Geary attempting to molest Hamish Parkinson by the riverside, in exchange for some detective information. Parkinson’s hysterical physicality was a highlight, yet again. I loved Jennifer O’Sullivan and Amy Currie’s increasingly-frantic musical interpretation of envious friendship.

And more on musicality, Robbie Ellis (on the keyboards, trumpet, recorder, harmonica), Tane Upjohn-Beatson (on the guitar and violin), Sam Smith (drums) and Christine Brooks (beer bottle, egg shaker) were worth coming to see for their own performance. Pulling various instruments from under the table, embellishing the improvisations with impeccably-timed pauses or punches or zing, responding to each other without as much as a look… professional musicianship at its best.

The music added so much to this Improv Festival, it’s hard to imagine it would have succeeded so well without it. Kudos.


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Making it their own

Review by Caoilinn Hughes 14th Oct 2011

BATS Theatre is buzzing with the NZ Improv Festival, now in full swing. There are two more days to get in on the action, with three shows tonight (Friday) and five shows tomorrow — two daytime and three evening performances.

The festival’s fresh and vibrant energy is fuelled by the fact that the shows’ casts spill into each other and the audience of one show spills into the next; creating a lively, informal dynamic that feels very true to improv. 

Don’t read informality as amateurism, though. The Festival as a whole is beautifully streamlined and the productions boast accomplished directors and performers, with not a tongue-tied awkward silence to be endured (sometimes a feature of improv!). Or perhaps it is Robbie Ellis’ ingenious musicianship that disguises whatever lulls there might be and turns them into elegant interludes on the piano / keyboard / electric guitar in his impressive, interpretive, improvised soundtrack. It sure as hell beats an ironic rimshot.   

Spoken was the first performance of Thursday evening. It is one of the few performances in the Improv Festival that isn’t presented by one production company or established improv group.

Melbourne-based director Jason Geary (founder and director of Impro Melbourne) has rounded up some of the Festival performers to present a show format (created by Randy Dixon, Seattle) which he has used before. The format presents a central scene that repeats throughout the show, creating a kind of fulcrum around which revolves seemingly unrelated improvised sketches, and the audience is expected to make the connections.

The relatively avant-guardist concept seemed to go down well with the audience, but some people will feel a little cheated that they have to create their own through-line or meaning. You don’t come to improv comedy to see a coherent story, it’s true, but Spoken is much more theatrical than comedic. It almost presents itself as a devised play (and it is a testament to the performers that the scenes seem rehearsed), and so it’s hard to avoid looking for narrative cohesion. But Geary tells me: “I think it’s a very elegant format, and I love to use it.” So who’s to argue?

(Jason Geary’s own format, How But This? will play on Saturday at 6.30pm.)  

L.O.V.E.  Up Against Improv presents four very entertaining performers who riff on the theme of love in a very nicely structured format. With a touch of audience inspiration to colour each scene, the Christchurch improv professionals promise to be “passionate, eye-opening and… well… lovely.”

They certainly are a passionate and… well… lovely group, and the feverous energy doesn’t cool off for the entire hour. This really is improv, and it really is comedic. Hamish Parkinson stole the show last night, with his hilarious physicality, caricaturing, comic timing and his ability to know when something is or isn’t really working; so crucial to good quality improv. He knew when to say: “This is boring” to a scene depicting ‘genre sex’ (e.g. Victorian sex, Spaghetti Western sex and so on) before the audience was dangerously given the chance to come to that conclusion.

Under Parkinson’s guidance, Dan Bain got the laugh of the evening with a moment of Kung-Fu sex genius. Poor quixotic Elsie Edgerton-Till didn’t know what was coming to her. Good hearted, good zing, good fun… a little like love, perhaps. 

Presented by WIT’s Polaroid Players, The Long Weekend is an improvised story about five old friends away on a long weekend. The specifics of the story change each night, along with the setting and characters, but last night’s World premiere rendition presented some naturally charismatic, believably eccentric and sympathy-inducing misfits that were pure bliss on stage together.

Again, it’s a testament to the performers that the narrative seemed so purposeful and the dialogue seemed so nuanced and flowing. WIT’s Polaroid Players are a group of ‘reuniting Wellington improvisers’ to look out for. That Brandon Brooks, Christine Brooks, Nicola Hill, Merrilee McCoy and Paul Sullivan are all experienced improvisers is obvious, and indicative of their training support from Tai Samaeli.

The form of The Long Weekend draws on the training techniques of world-renowned improv groups: Radical Improv (AIN, Boston) and Tragic Improv (New York). These performers make it their own, and it works.  


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Something of value will always materialise before our very eyes

Review by John Smythe 12th Oct 2011

My spontaneous response to the opening night of this year’s NZ Improv Festival at Bats is that the must-see show, so far, is Rebecca De Unamuno is… OPEN TO SUGGESTION, and there is only one more chance, on Friday 14 October (8pm). More on her una muno …

Last night, which was the first of five (plus kids’ shows on Saturday; click on the title above for the full Festival schedule), kicked off with NZIF Unplugged: Sink or Swim (created by Nick Byrne, inspired by Die Gorillas, Berlin).

The eight players – variously from Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Australia – are randomly paired up. Under the oversight of Jennifer O’Sullivan and provoked by audience offers, the four couples commence a potentially episodic story and pitch for the right to continue, with the audience ‘clap-o-meter’ causing one couple to drop off after each round. All is enhanced by the remarkable musician Tane Upjohn-Beatson on keys and guitar, and Darryn Woods on lights.

This night Vanessa Wells and Eli Matthewson are lovers via Skype who share a love of horse grooming; Paul Sullivan and Elsie Edgerton-Till head for a picnic in their Toyota; Merilee McCoy and Jason Geary are neighbours whose boundary fence feud may be resolved via apple crumble; Christine Books and Brendon Bennetts are scientists battling iguana rot and the escape of a lobster …

I am sorry to see Sullivan and Edgerton-Till dropped after the first round because while their starting point may have been relatively mundane, they are the only improvisers I have seen of late – this night and over the last year or more – who truly excel in open-ended offers. That is, rather than tell each other who is who and what is what, they tease it out through multiple exchanges that produce results neither knew were coming. Apart from being much more fun for them and us, it honours first principles of Keith Johnstone-style improv which I feel have been allowed to slip over time.

In the end the toothless crumble-lovers are overtaken by the freedom-questing lobster and iguana rot-contaminated scientist who somehow ends up in hell, to be joined by the eliminated played for a grand finale. A pretty good warm up show.

Sydney-based Rebecca De Unamuno, of Knee-Jerk Reactions, is an exquisite and generous talent. She normally flies solo with this show but here is delighted to have Upjohn-Beatson and Woods to play with, or rather playing with her.

Totally Open to Suggestion she asks the audience for a number between 5 and 95, a season, a film score, an occupation and a female name. Thus evolves a 94 year-old widower watching leaves falling from a tree as he recalls his life; a north country (UK) nurse called Molly who smokes (“I know… Don’t judge me”) and a kooky-voiced American ‘femme fatale’ trapped in her Film Noir stereotype, whishing she could move on from the clichés …

De Unamuno’s great talent is in building each character’s story through monologues, and sometimes self-narration, using suddenly apparent ideas, themes or phrases to segue from one to another.  Gradually and magically she brings the disparate parts together, making full use of everything that evolves so that nothing seems superfluous.

Thus the old man turns out to be Molly’s Aussie granddad, who turns to the dame-turned dancer-turned PI-turned spiritualist medium to receive a last message from his dead wife regarding the tree, which has proved to be the site of a testing moment in their long relationship. Sublime.

“She made me cry,” the woman beside me confesses. Indeed it was very moving in parts, as it explored true human experience, even within genres that trade in cliché. What a pleasure to witness improv at this highly sophisticated and hugely entertaining level.

L.O.V.E is brought to us from Christchurch by Elsie Edgerton-Till, Vanessa Wells, Hamish Parkinson and Eli Matthewson, who are Up Against Improv.  (All four are also Court Jesters, who offer The Directors on Wednesday at 6.30 and Friday at 9.30; and the guys also call themselves Chicken Legs when they present Velcro Impro on Wednesday at 9.30 and Friday at 6.30).

En route to our seats we are asked to complete the statement “Love is …” on slips of paper, to be randomly plucked from a basket later. A sexy female voice offers suggestive safety instructions to set the tone …

Book-ended by readings of snippets from antique-looking tomes, the show is delivered in chapters entitled The Introduction, The First Date, Unrequited Love, Romance, Sex and True Love. Audience acclaim determines which of two pitched ideas will proceed (to be directed by its pitcher) and audience offers, plus randomly selected definitions of love (from the basket), add challenges into the premise for each chapter. 

A good range of topics and tones is achieved this night (it plays out again on Thursday at 8pm). Inevitably the high points are intersected by relative lulls but the nature of improv is such that when it’s played well – as in this festival – it is virtually impossible for nothing to happen. Something of value will always materialise before our very eyes.

The NZ Improv Festival is hosted by the Wellington Improvisation Troupe (WIT) who offer their CSI Wainui format on Wednesday at 8pm and the world premiere of The Long Weekend on Thursday at 9.30.  The full programme is on the production page (click on the title at the top of this review). 


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