Donna Sue Robson specialises in the communication- and healing-arts. Jamie Natural Health and Healing is her energy-healing consultancy. Her modalities, workshops and boutique natural products can be viewed and purchased from www.jamienatural.com.
Real-time, improvised theatre: be part of the story
Himalayan trekker experiencing the 'Pain Level 2' and the debilitating effects of altitude sickness.
Smells like a Song is a recent work from Impro Melbourne, our premier improvisation theatre company that is based in Abbotsford. This is a skilled team of professionals who not only write, act, teach and choreograph, but who are also on a mission to educate audiences about this very interactive form of theatre and play-art. Smells like a Song is difficult to review in that the following week- everything could change! It is an audience-directed and -motivated show. Actors rotate, so that week-by-week there may be a different line-up. Therefore, it is less about the actual story and performance, and more about whether 'Impro' itself grabs you and what you are seeking from your own theatre experience. I loved this production: it was vibrant and suspenseful because it is a moment-by-moment experience and the actors are totally responsive to each another and their audience. That, in itself, is a recipe for total theatre engagement.
Smells like a Song is produced by highly skilled actors, directors and musicians all of whom are gifted and well-trained in the art of improvisation. Following a tight format, the show is engaging, entertaining and fast-paced.
Improvised theatre requires great all-round performance skills, an ability to think on your feet and positive support of cast members. The audience needs to be able to suspend belief and have a desire to actively participate so that fun can truly be shared. This style of theatre is friendly and unintimidating: actors do not put you on the spot or seek to embarrass or expose you: improvised theatre is about active story-telling and connectivity.
You need a sense of the ridiculous to enjoy improvised theatre. It is just plain fun!
Even though Smells like a Song is an 'in-the-moment experience', certain responses and a rough musical framework would have been rehearsed. An experienced and well-respected company, Impro Melbourne has material at their fingertips ready to draw upon. Clearly, too, there are techniques that can motivate and direct an audience response- the most obvious being 'keywords'. That is my guess. It is, no doubt, similar to the way in which you would prepare for an exam- there are topics for which you can prepare even though the exam question is a surprise packet. They have knowledge, technique and a conceptual structure- then the improvisation begins. Professional skills and preparation ensures that the story can unfold in a free-flowing way without becoming tedious, boring or self-indulgent.
Improvisation skills such as 'acceptance' and 'enjoying failure' help to build the story and character rapport. Smells like a Song relies on actor listening ability and affirmative teamwork: each cast member knows when to take the lead or back-up a story thread.
The story begins with an invitation to the audience: 'if you could live anywhere in the world, in any community, where would it be?' Last Saturday night, the first response was 'Annapurna Trail, Himalayas, which was accepted as the night's story theme and setting. Audience suggestions or visions such as 'mountains', 'fresh air', 'children', 'donkeys', 'prayer flags' and 'trekkers' became characters which were soon to be highlighted scene-by-scene. Director Tim Redmond spins a loose narrative, which actors then drive with improvised dialogue. Their job is to stick to keywords and themes and to make each other look good. This ensemble style of story-telling is a great way to develop sub-plot and character relationships because it naturally relies on actor resonance and on-stage support. For writers, or in fact any creative person who works alone, it is fascinating to watch the interaction and the skills required for achieving spontaneity. At this stage, it is not only entertainment but a metaphor for the way life demands us to connect and to communicate effectively.
Smells like a Song
At the point of dramatic cadences, keywords, pauses or really, at any time an audience member feels compelled, a rose can be thrown onto the stage, with the catch-cry 'Smells like a Song'. This is a cue for that actor to break into- or rather- to invent a song. Not only does this create humour and release tension, it creates twists and turns and - a musical.
The style of theatrical composition and performance is that the story is impossible to predict. If you love improvisation, then you could effectively follow this company and see the same show every week and know that it would never be the same show. Smells like a Song is a great night's entertainment for groups and friends. You take your own party and become part of a bigger one.
For the strategist or student actor, it is entertaining to muse over the on-stage skills involved: actor focus, memory and listening skills are clear and striking. From the first audience suggestion of a story theme, actors have to construct their characters and their changing roles in the story and then be prepared to pivot, back-track, hedge, side-track or repeat - at any given moment. Actors listen intently to each other and their Director even when they are 'off-stage': they must be on-the-ball to pick-up a thread or re-thread a pattern should the story line require a re-visit. As the story unfolds, and the plot thickens, respect and rapport between performers and their audience grows.
And there you have it: casualty turned into 'murder with an ice-pick' on the Annapurna Trail.
Impro Melbourne has been operating for 11 years and each actor has at least 18 months of training before they are invited to perform. The cast for Smells like a Song on 22nd October included Mike Bryant, Sophie Power, Sarah Kinsella, Rhys Auteri, Ty Je and Brenna Dixon, all of whom were masterful and energetic. Tim Redmond was their skilful Director and Pan provided keyboard accompaniment. Indeed, music too, was part of the improvisation: Pan inspired off-stage rhythms from the actors and instigated changes in key, rhythm, timing and even genre when the mood so demanded.
Impro Melbourne run workshops in which they teach improvisation technique. Even if you do not want to take the stage, this is something to consider if you want to improve your work-based skills such as public speaking or your inter-personal communication skills.
Smells like a Song is an exciting theatre experience. The fun lies in active and creative story-telling with musical surprise and humour. This is a grassroots and truly 'live' performing-arts genre, based on consequences of action and reaction as well as ad-lib character interplay. Smells like a Song turns the audience from a 'witness' to a 'participant', which in turn changes the relationship between an audience and the show's performers. Just as actors relate and work-off each other- audience members connect with each other too: there are many layers to this interactive experience. Smells like a Song,' as the name suggests, is based on sensory immediacy and real-time theatre.
Impro Melbourne have several shows playing in Melbourne including the very popular Theatre Sports, in The David Williamson Theatre Prahran. Grand Theft Auto precedes Smells like a Song at The Courthouse Hotel in North Melbourne. Smells like a Song starts at 9.30pm and costs $15, or you can see both shows, starting at 8.30pm for only $20. Both shows run Saturday nights until the 19th November.
The surviving Himalayan trekkers end their adventure with a song. Roses thrown onto the stage help to direct the story line as words are turned into songs.