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The Sparrow Men - Midsumma Festival

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by Samsara (subscribe)
I am a director, playwright, and theatre critic with a Masters in Writing for Performance. You can check out my my portfolio and musings at
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Journey into a magical realm of your own choosing
It seems like everybody loves improv comedy and Melbourne has it's fair share of improvisation companies. One of the more prestigious is The Improv Conspiracy and both Sparrow Men have trained and work with this Melbourne institution. They are back for Midsumma giving us a hilarious and heart warming taste of Chicago style improvisation at the L1 Studios.

The Sparrow Men
Marcus Willis and Andy Balloch

Who are The Sparrow Men I hear you ask? The Sparrow Men are Marcus Willis and Andy Balloch who work as an improvisation duo. Sparrow Man is the name given to cys-gender male fairies (pixies) - although there is an argument that the term fairy covers all genders...Speak to Disney, the concepts are far too complex for me! Anyway... Willis and Balloch work together to create improvisational magic on stage in a fun and playful way, with perhaps just a hint of naughtiness just like pixies should.

Every night this week Willis and Balloch will ask the audience for the name of a show they must create in front of our very eyes. They have no script and no idea what will happen. They create long form improvisation (about an hour in duration) and manage to create wonderfully complex characters and layered story lines which would put the most popular daytime soap operas to shame.

Long form Chicago style improvisation is not sketch or stand up comedy. In fact, some people prefer to refer to it as improvisational theatre rather than improvisational comedy.

The Sparrow Men
Marcus Willis and Andy Balloch

This style of improvisation was developed in Chicago in the 1980's. It is based around two major concepts - the game of the scene and position play. The game of the scene is any recurring pattern of character or situation which defines the rules of the scene. Position play refers to the cues at the beginning of the scene which denote who is the puppet and who is the puppet master. This form of improvisation is not about getting to the boom tish moment quickly. It is about fleshing each scene out and deconstructing the relationships through exploration. Therein lies the comedy.

The reason this form of improvisation works is because it requires an honesty and reality from the performers (which doesn't mean it can't be absurd). Because of this, long form improv works on the same principles as any dramatic text, they just haven't written it down yet.

On the night I went the story was The Three Wombats. We met Kev and Trev who were out camping (there was some confusion about who was Kev but it didn't get in the way of some good laughs). Their wives Trish and Gloria meanwhile decided to take up smoking and trash their houses. Georgie and Barry met the cutest spider which they named Monty. Hanz and Frankie were top rate carpet salesmen who managed to buy a boat on the proceeds of a single sale to Kev(?) and Trish. And the Tackle Shop Owner invented a new fishing rod but ended up giving them all away due to lack of business acumen.

The Sparrow Men
Andy Balloch and Marcus Willis

One of the funniest moments for me was when the Tackle Shop Owner and Boat Seller got drunk and tried to debate the laws of cause and effect. I also became very attached to Monty and nearly cried when he was set free. Another hilarious moment was when the Boat Seller tried to upsell Hans and Hans swats him like a fly.

As well as training with The Improv Conspiracy, Willis and Balloch have both independently trained with iO (Improvisation Olympics) so they both work within the same paradigm which is probably why they work so well together. They keep the staging simple and clean leaving themselves exposed and yet open to all opportunities, using only the skills they bring with them to create the characters, scenes and worlds.

This is such an intriguing process to watch I recommend all theatre-makers go along and see how it works. This is playwriting at its nascent moment and these guys have the sophistication to not just construct scenes, but to complete ideas and expose concepts on the spot. The Three Wombats would make the most wonderful script if it was developed into a fully fledged play.

3 Stars
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*Samsara was invited as a guest
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When: 27 January - 4 February 2017
Phone: 0406 093 090
Where: L1 Studios
Cost: From $18
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