This may sound like an oxymoron, but Veronica Stivala braved the daunting prospect of performing in a musical improvised from start to finish, and loved it.
It’s no joke to get up in front of an audience whether to speak, act, dance or sing to them. This is the reason we rehearse a production, refining our delivery of lines, positioning on stage, timing and so on. You’d think then that going on stage, along with a group of six other actors, to perform a full-length musical without knowing what the title would be, let alone our lines or songs, would be a stroke of madness, to say the least.
But that, rightly perplexed reader, is what I did a few weeks ago. This was my first taste of musical improvisation (more commonly referred to as improv) theatre and, while I can still vividly recall the fear of walking in front of a (paying) audience without knowing what I was going to perform, I can safely say that I am an addict.
But let’s start at the very beginning. While I have been acting for some 13 years now, I had never really done much improv. Admittedly, the name is a bit of a misnomer, because even though the content is quite definitely made up there and then on the spot and the actors really have no idea what their next line will be, there is a wealth of techniques, strategies and approaches that the improv actor has to be familiar with and trained in, in order to perform live for some 45 minutes.
While I had been training improv for a few months and while I have a musical background, I had never put the two together. I was lucky to join established Munich-based improv group Bake This! for a weekend-long workshop with Belgian-born Bart Van Loon, an improvisational actor, pianist and musician, which culminated in a performance on the following Monday evening.
Our two-day session began early Saturday morning in one of the high-ceilinged, wide and lengthy halls of the imposing building that is the Technical University in Munich. I am not new to theatre workshops so I did not find singing to a stack of chairs, or the curtains, or moving my body and matching sounds to the swirly radiator the least bit odd. My anxiety lay more in the prospect of singing to an audience in some 48 hours’ time.
But looking back, the biggest thing I took with me and which I will never forget, is the importance, heck the art, of trusting one’s fellow performers. Trust is the most important key to being a strong performer. Improv is a strange beast and, because you have no idea what you are going to say in the next minute, let alone your acting partners, you need to be in a position where you have faith in the others to help you take your story, or your song forward. And, rather than trying to make oneself look good, try to make your partner shine and you’re in for a great run.
Van Loon essentially taught us the skeleton structure of a musical, so we knew that we would begin with an overture, have some main characters as well as one who went against the grain, and a closing number. We were also shown the workings of a standard song and after a few hours we were building rhyming stanzas, with a refrain and a bridge. The process was intelligent because we essentially deconstructed a musical in order to be able to then build one up by ourselves.
As with everything else, practice makes perfect and I can only attempt to describe the gradual increase in feeling at ease with my acting companions to stand at the edge of that metaphorical cliff and take the leap together, no one knowing where and when we would land. I must admit I am a nervous acrophobic with an exceedingly low risk taking threshold, but when it comes to improv, I confess I love the rush.
Thanks to the suggestion of one considerate audience member, we found ourselves performing Neuschwanstein, the musical! (Neuschwanstein is a famous castle in Bavaria, known to the greater world as the Disney logo castle). And, just like improvisation itself, our musical creation was an ephemeral hour of surprise, intrigue and lots of laughter.
This article originally appeared in The Times of Malta, May 2016