The IMPROVables |
A small room in an old building goes dark, and the spotlight forms a small stage at the front of the room. The audience is seated on chairs and benches and floormats, here to see The Improvables in one of their performances for Lit Up 2012. There are no props nor costumes here: the realm of improv theatre, which most of us are familiar with from the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, consists of actors reacting spontaneously to cues given to them. In Singapore the improv comedy scene has been quiet, featuring the occasional act each year, and I wasn't quite sure what to expect that night from the team consisting of Amil, En Hua, Jennifer, Kim, and Luke.

The show kicked off with a short introduction from the game master, Kim, and delved straight into short form games - scenes which lasted about ten minutes each and involved spontaneous acting, singing or rapping from the team of actors. The games kicked off with Sports Commentary. When asked for a suggestion of a daily activity, an audience member yelled, "Going to the toilet!" And so it began. With two actors commentating and two actors participating, the race of toilet seats began. The participants flushed in slow motion, made painful faces of constipation, and shoved each other on their way to, well, finishing. "A dirty sport!" one of the commentators proclaimed as one actor proceeded to flush the other's head.

The musical and rap games which followed were no less entertaining, spawning such lyrical gems to the tune of The Phantom of the Opera: "I chose accounting and business for my degree / Please give me some beans / So I can count / But not for free". But the fun of improv theatre really came through in the games with direct audience participation - Change, staged in a suburbia ravaged by dinosaurs, had us yelling "Change!" each time to have the actors redo their last line or action. This happened rather often - "There's a dinosaur in our backyard?" "Change!" "The postman is in our backyard?" "Change!" "We have a backyard?" - until the audience was well satisfied, too busy laughing to yell. It felt like an instant critique of the dialogue, pushing the limits of the actors to meet the audience's expectations and a good reflection of the nature of improv comedy. Another game, Film, Theater and TV Styles, had the team acting out "Dictatorjuice" - a combination of the films Dictator and Beetlejuice. The styles portrayed by the actors were spot on: in Michael Bay style one declared "I come for your juice"; in cowboy style another declared, "There's no room in this town for you and my juice." The short form games were, by and large, a rousing success.

The next half of the show moved on to long form improv: Short plays inspired by random, ridiculous suggestions from the audience. I enjoyed particularly The Kong, a musical number built on the two themes of "boys in tight white shorts", and the "Ensurer of Equal Suffering", a civil service position. (Don't ask.) The cast burst out spontaneously into songs about the woes of scholars, brain cancer and pedophilia; they created centaurs which turned into garoupas and aggrieved civil servants fretting about the future. They even got a little jab in with improvised dialogue - the centaur asks, "Are you a man, a human being?" The reply is brief and brutal: "No, I'm a civil servant."

It felt like an instant critique of the dialogue, pushing the limits of the actors to meet the audience's expectations and a good reflection of the nature of improv comedy.

The other two long form plays were equally entertaining: Circle of Death weaved disparate scenes into a hilarious, cohesive narrative containing zombies, bandung "plus" and child devourers; Tag Out, which had only two people on stage at any point in time, turned the tale of Christmas and Santa Claus into a seedy crime story with a porn star and multiple guns. Plus, it birthed this memorable exchange between Rudolf and a grumpy elf: "You're an elf!" "YOU'RE AN ELF!" "… I'm obviously a reindeer!" "I know, it was an insult."

I would love to tell you more about the plays and bring you through each snappy line or action that drew laughter from the audience. But it was one of those things where you just had to be there - and perhaps that is the essence of improv. At the very beginning of the show we were told: None of the three shows to be performed for the Lit Up festival would be the same, even if the venue and actors stayed unchanged. Each show is unique because the audience is asked for the topic of the scene; the actors react on the spot to produce lines which are not only coherent, but funny. The show exists that night, and that night only.

The Improvables had very little to work with: a small room and stage, a simple sound system and an audience who, going by initial responses, were by and large unfamiliar with improv theatre. They had a few technical hiccups, the occasional beat missed in their timing, and the disadvantage of multitasking as actors, game master, and tech crew. Yet the dialogue was snappy and at time, very Singaporean; the cast was entertaining and quick on their feet, and I came away well amused and impressed by their ability to make the random both cohesive and funny. While improv theatre still has a way to go on our little island, the Improvables encompassed its spirit by giving the audience a night of laughter.
Written by Lim Si Hui