By Jenny Neyman
The stories are real(ish). The “Alaskans” (except for one) are not. Yes, the bears are embellished for comedic effect, but the humor is completely genuine.
“You find the humor in authenticity,” said Ann Flynn.
“You listen to the audience, whatever the audience is responding to, that’s a signal to you, ‘Oh, that’s funny, let’s keep doing this.’ If they’re not responding then you know, ‘OK, let’s move on.’ So each show becomes tailored to that particular audience,” said Royce Roeswood, who will perform “Faked Alaska,” a touring improv show, with Flynn and Austin Terrell on Feb. 28 and March 1 at Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna.
The trio is up from the Lower 48 — Roeswood from Colorado, where the three performed at an improv club, and husband and wife Terrell and Flynn from Austin, Texas — to perform a series of improv shows and a Neil Simon comedy, “Barefoot in the Park,” for Triumvirate.
With improvisational comedy each performance is completely different, generated on the spot in front of the audience, though every show in “Faked Alaska” starts with the same approach.
“We bring a volunteer onstage,” Roeswood said.
“And take a look at their authentic Alaska identification to make sure they themselves are authentic Alaskans because we, in fact, are faked Alaskans,” Flynn said.
“And we ask them a whole bunch of questions about what’s it like to live in Alaska, what they do here, do they have a bear story. Based on their answers we use that to improvise for the next hour. We take those answers and turn them into scenes and characters right in the moment, live onstage,” Roeswood said.
Like the woman at the group’s Talkeetna show who shared her bear experience, going outside at night to check on her garbage cans, thinking dogs had gotten into them.
“She didn’t have her contacts in, didn’t have her glasses on, she wasn’t wearing anything except for her self-proclaimed granny panties, and she met the bears with she, herself, being bare, and I think it was mutual fear and fright that scared them back into their habitats,” Flynn said.
Now that there is a nugget of improv gold, spun into a re-enactment of the encounter from the frightened bears’ perspective.
“We make from one, 10-minute interview 10 to 15 scenes, so people get a good variety,” Flynn said.
Something the volunteer says sparks an idea for a character or situation, and the actor is off and setting the scene. The other two jump in and build the scene according to the rules of improv.
First rule: Always say yes — agree with and support whatever a fellow actor says or creates. The moon is made of cheese? We’ll get NASA working on a cracker landing craft. A forgetful bear is desperate to find a Valentine’s Day gift before he heads back to the den? Then stop into my Alaska gift shop and check out our full line of moose-poop jewelry.
Second rule: And? Meaning, always agree to what’s presented and then contribute something of your own to build the scene.
Beyond that, “It’s just committing wholeheartedly to whatever’s going on,” Roeswood said.
“Faked Alaska” is long-form improv, a theatrical style where actors create characters and scenarios based on input from the audience. Perhaps the best-known style of improv these days is short form, popularized by the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” TV show, a series of quick games where actors improv within the rules presented to them.
“’Whose Line’ has been really good about spreading what improv is,” Roeswood said, but not the varieties beyond those short games. “Long-form improv is much freer, it’s more theatrical, it’s more based on characters and relationships.”
That can be more satisfying for actors and the audience, with the potential to give a scene more weight and space to develop than just quick, light laughs.
“And it’s not just laughter in our shows,” Flynn said. “There’s a lot of true connections — there could be love, there could be scenes that leave you very sad — you go through a whole range of emotions with these characters. They’re woven in and some of them are taken out and you go, ‘Oh, I miss Bob. Bob was a great character,’ but then Bob might come back and interact with Janine, and you get to watch this whole flow of things. It gives you a whole range. You can be anyone, anywhere. You don’t have any confines.”
The other end of the comedy spectrum is a scripted play, as is “Barefoot in the Park,” which the three will perform, with local actors Terri Burdick and Richard Vollertsen, on Feb. 21 and 22 at Triumvirate in Soldotna.
It’s a different challenge — characters to learn, lines to memorize, movements and reactions to rehearse — but one that still allows some originality in mining the rich possibilities of Neil Simon’s script.
“It’s fun because you have so many different ways you can play his lines. It’s interesting getting a feel for his comedy. Coming from three improvisers, we’ve all got our own comedic styles, generally, and now we have to move to a scripted style of comedy so it’s interesting to watch the progression of our own selves inform our character’s choices, and how much of our own comedy style comes out in the characters that we’ve been given,” Flynn said.
Simon wrote the play in the 1960s, full of his characteristic quick-witted dialogue, and it became a hit Broadway production, as well as a movie. In it, Corrie and Paul are newlyweds, trying to square their somewhat square-peg-round-hole personalities amid an argument about setting up Corrie’s widowed mother, Ethel, with the neighborhood lothario, Victor.
It’s a “little” story — no wars or other epic plot points, nor any songs, dance numbers or special effects — happening in a short period of time, set entirely in Corrie and Paul’s apartment, but with big personalities.
“It was a genera-changing show in its time because it was kind of the first of its kind, in the fact that it was taking a look at actual relationships in an actual setting,” Terrell said. “Neil Simon was one of the first to do that. This was a largest popular play to do that at that time.”
That’s where the fun comes in, is developing the characters. Is Corrie, played by Flynn, flighty, or just a little free-spirited? Is Paul, played by Terrell, steady, or stuffy? Just how ridiculous is Ethel, played by Burdick? And is Victor, played by Roeswood, a cad or a space cadet?
“I didn’t expect ‘Barefoot in the Park’ to be such fun. For an older play you don’t expect the comedy to resonate still, but it’s still funny,” Flynn said.
It didn’t look that way when they first read the script, as the play is basically about a silly squabble that escalates into a marital crisis. But the nuances in how it’s presented bring not only the characters, but the comedy, to life.
“On the page it reads kind of like, ‘Oh, they’re just fighting.’ But when you hear it in the voices it’s actually really funny,” Roeswood said.
“(And) it’s unexpectedly poignant. You get a chance to really explore a relationship,” Terrell said.
“Barefoot in the Park” performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna. Tickets are $15, available at the door and in advance at the Triumvirate Bookstore. The “Faked Alaska” improv shows are at 7 p.m. next Friday and Saturday, Feb. 28 and March 1, at Triumvirate in Soldotna. Tickets also are $15 at the door or in advance.
The troupe also is conducting improv workshops, in Seldovia, Ninilchik, Soldotna High School and Nikiski High School. A workshop for adults will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 27 at Triumvirate in Soldotna.
If the shows prove popular and draw a crowd, Triumvirate hopes to bring the troupe back for future shows and improv workshops. To that idea the ever-agreeable improvers, of course, say yes.
“It’s been fun. And for the people here it seems like this will be a fun experience,” Flynn said. “Because it seems like the arts community here is really alive. People are serious about it.”