BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington
20/02/2017 - 24/02/2017
NZ Fringe Festival 2017 [reviewing supported by WCC]
Who? will utilise the technique of Actors’ Improv™ to create theatre that combines the dramatic integrity of playwriting with the playful tension of spontaneously generated work.
Through collaborative inspiration with the audience, we examine authentic relationships, and perform emotionally dynamic, physically intimate, serio-comic theater… that happens to be improvised!
Directed by Bobbi Block, creative director of Tongue and Groove spontaneous theatre company in Philadelphia.
BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome – 1 Kent Terrace, Mount Victoria, Wellington
Feb 20-24 2017
Theatre , Improv ,
Strong offers and subtle skill
Review by John Smythe 21st Feb 2017
Who? is billed as the NZ and International premiere of a format that has previously only performed by the Tongue & Groove Spontaneous Theatre company in Philadelphia. The Best on Tap media release states it “will utilise the technique of Actors’ Improv™ to create theatre that combines the dramatic integrity of playwriting with the playful tension of spontaneously generated work.”
The brochure summary further declares: “Through collaborative inspiration with the audience, we examine authentic relationships, and perform emotionally dynamic, physically intimate, serio-comic theatre that happens to be improvised!” And Tongue & Groove’s Producing Artistic Director Bobbi Block has come to Wellington to direct the well-established Best on Tap team in the format.
At the box office we are asked to choose an index card: blue if you identify as male; yellow if you identify as female; either/ whatever if you identify as something else. And I’m told there’s been a vigorous response on social media to this ‘so last century’ limit of choices.
The programme asks us to write our true and concise response to the question, “Who are you?”, and offers examples like “I am awkward and wish I were a cat”, “I am a gather in a hunter’s world”, “I am a recent widow remaking my life” … And what’s on our cards form the basis of the show to follow.
Sebastian Morgan-Lynch’s cello overture honours the promise that the work will be both comic and poignant, and he makes strong offers in the segues for one scenario to another.
Opening night’s six performers – Barry Miskimmin, Kate Wilson, Matt Hutton, Mary Little, Nicola Pauling and Wiremu Tuhiwai – work to a basic male/female binary in choosing blue or yellow cards from the bowl. Each read from one to kick the show off and throughout the hour they will utilise more. Given it’s a ‘never to be repeated’ experience of theatre, I’ll be more detailed than usual in order to indicate how much is achieved.
The first foray into ‘serio-comic theatre’ sees: Nicola freaking out as a woman heading to her first full-time job after 15-years as a student while Wiremu, as her partner/husband works to bolster her confidence; Mary and Matt as a young couple, Suze and Andy, preparing to have his parents for dinner with Suze believing she has to get everything perfect for them to love her; Kate as a 16 year-old leaving her widower father (Barry as Trevor) in Te Awamutu for the bright lights of Wellington, convincing him, “Mum would have wanted me to go.” They are strong starting points for dramas to follow.
Nicola offers a monologue as a woman who is “crazy about swimming in the sea when the water is as calm as a millpond.” Then Wiremu becomes Jeff, a lawyer who is a Dr Who fan (see what he does there?) and feels an undeclared attraction to his conscientious colleague (Mary), who makes him admit it and leaves us guessing how she feels about it.
A long silence between Nicola and Barry sees the others join them to observe an aurora except the first couple are having issues about his demanding decorum in public which she rebels against – and when he obliges with crazy dancing Mary uses her phone to put it on Facebook Live and wins him multiple ‘likes’, which embarrasses his wife. A perceptively paradoxical syndrome.
Matt and Wiremu introduce themselves (as per randomly selected blue cards) on an online chat room which could be a Skyrim gaming site – or should they be on Grindr? Ostensibly meeting to practice yoga, Kate and Mary awkwardly negotiate the breakup of women who were best friends at school but now have nothing in common, although the busy businesswoman (Mary) does admire the other (Kate) for working with Kaibosh.
When Barry reads that he is “A vagabond teacher with a knack for having the loudest voice in the room” and Wiremu reads, “I am a liberal white male …” the others surround them to describe what they are wearing and other characteristics, starting each statement with, “This man ….”
Another variation uses the speed-dating format, with cards being used to introduce one to another. Here a bell is used to indicate when it’s time to move on but meanwhile each participant has a buzzer – and I confess I’m at a loss to work out whether it’s for registering approval, disapproval or something else in response to what the other person says.
And so we come to scenes that progress from the original scenarios. (If any of the characters in the meantime have been from the first three duos, I didn’t get it; I take it all are different, perhaps in a quest to use as many of the audience offers as possible.)
Jeff (Wiremu) shows his colleague (Mary) his ‘man cave’ and she suggests sex as long as it’s casual but he wants something more: a classic emotional dilemma. There’s a nice touch here with voice-activated sound (Sebastian Morgan-Lynch) and lighting (Darryn Woods) effects. Wilfully mixing his sci-fi genres, Jeff declares he “will boldly go” wherever she wants him to go.”
We find the 16 year-old runaway from Te Awamutu (Kate) 15 years on, now 31 and in a relationship with tattooed and body-pierced Jane (Nicola), preparing to welcome Dad/Trevor. This is the first time he has left Te Awamutu and of course he has some difficulty with coming to terms with all this and wants to blame someone … The scene includes a wonderfully premature quasi-proposal and promise of grandchildren before he sees his way clear to giving his blessing, realising all ‘Mum’ would have wanted was for their daughter to be happy.
As for Suze (Mary) and Andy (Matt), the pressure she feels under from trying to win the approval of Joyce, Andy’s mother, through compulsive neatness, has taken its toll. And they credibly recognise the problem and convince us they will move on to a happier space.
The show ends with snippets recalled from the hour, allowing us to marvel at how much has been conjured from a bowl of cards contributed by the audience. And yes, it is impressive … if leaving me somewhat in overwhelm, as if I’ve been channel-hopping rather than focussing on a sustained drama involving multiple characters. I wonder what might be sacrificed to allow those relationships that began and ended the show to each grow further, through one more scene at least.
The opening night sextet have played this game with strong offers and subtle skill: a splendid exemplar of the rare art of improv. It just feel it has subverted its intention to “create theatre that combines the dramatic integrity of playwriting with the playful tension of spontaneously generated work.”
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Mary Little February 22nd, 2017
I can report: there is no sign of any conversation about Who? on the NZ Fringe Facebook page. There hasn't been any social media chatter that myself (as Best on Tap social media person) or the team at BATS have seen or heard of. Box Office at BATS reports nobody has expressed concern to them about the two types of cards. If anyone does with to discuss this aspect of the show, any member of the cast will be more than happy to chat about it.
Mary Little February 21st, 2017
Hi John, thanks for that clarification - I'll see if I can track it down.
John Smythe February 21st, 2017
Hi Mary - it wasn't the box office but the person sitting next to me who mentioned the social media chit-chat - on the Fringe Facebook page, I believe, but it's impossible to search on such sites so I couldn't find it, so have no idea of its tone. Thanks for responding to the binary element - i thought as much, and fair enough.
Mary Little February 21st, 2017
Not all of the audience's personal statement cards that we use in "Who?" will be gender-specific, but some will be. If, for example, one of the men in our cast gets "I'm a mum" or "I'm pregnant", he won't be able to play that story truthfully. We don't want to disrespect people's statements about themselves by changing them, eg from mum to dad. And we didn't want to invite people to submit a gender diverse identity that we don't feel able to accurately portray. Basically, it's a case of making our own limitations clear, and asking people generously to contribute statements to us on the understanding that we will do our absolute best to portray them truthfully and respectfully.