An audience can be a strange collective being, particularly when teased into action by a skillful improv team. A celibate Paris Hilton, tropical penguins, a leprechaun’s nipples and strippers, giants and rednecks on a cruise ship in Somalia – all these suggestions have been thrown at Taichung Improv during shows over two and a half years.
Leading the actors is facilitator Josh Myers, a key figure in Taichung’s small but enthusiastic expat theatre community. Josh is responsible for organising the group’s shows, workshops and practices, coordinating promotion and media relations, and ensuring the group doesn’t go stale. It’s all done for little pay and fitted around a full time job.
Three years ago, Josh was asked to participate in a masked children’s performance. “[It was] something very different for me but it was great fun, and then I met other foreigners with theatre backgrounds who were interested in doing stuff.”
Enthusiasm from the expat community combined with the work Myers was doing with another group in Kaohsiung led to the formation of Taichung Improv.
Of the original troupe, five core members remain – the other members change regularly and most do not act in every show. The group is all expats, from all over the world (and all over Taiwan): “…basically the United Nations…I mean, as a group we have to learn to work together.”
To compound the challenge their audience is also mixed. Myers explains it can be tough to avoid the localisms on which so much comedy is based. “We are trying to find a universal kind of humour that everyone can identify with. I think that’s what is different about us.”
Taichung Improv is dedicated to exploring ways to include their Taiwanese speaking audience. They recently added an interpreter so that locals can understand at least the premise of each game. “We didn’t have an interpreter initially but when we decided to widen our audience base, they came in handy. We don’t translate what is happening in the game but, with the Taiwanese people that I spoke with, they said they understand seventy percent of what’s happening.”
While there are currently no Taiwanese players in Taichung Improv, they would be welcome. “I want to get more Taiwanese people into the group but they’re terrified,” explains Myers. “I mean, we are terrified of it, and then more so for a Chinese speaker. But I would really love for some Chinese speakers to take the plunge.”
In order to accommodate Taiwanese audiences, the group focuses on a more physical, slapstick routine. The current format consists of a series of short games inspired by audience participation, but Myers says they hope to move to a new format in the future – one where the show is developed around a central theme. “There’s another form where you basically choose a theme for the evening,” explains Myers. “You create a character that comes back later on. So you can have a Hitchcock improv evening, or a Titanic one, or one where everything takes place on a cruise ship. We’re thinking of doing a Halloween improv night…getting audience members dressed up and having a whole evening of fun.”
How does one rehearse for slapstick and improvisational comedy? “We do theatre exercises…work on developing skills,” Myers explains, “You don’t have to be born with a talent for improv. It’s a skill you create and hone over time.”
Much of the group’s rehearsal time is spent developing storytelling skills and working on the technical aspects of putting a story together. “An improv scene is four minutes, so it’s a condensed mini-version of a play,” Myers explains, “We look at the elements of what makes a good story, what makes a story move forward, and then we focus on that. If you can tell a good story it will appeal to everybody. It might not win a Pulitzer Prize or it might not always be funny, but it will always be interesting.”
Most of Taichung Improv’s performances and rehearsals in recent months have been held on the second floor of The Londoner, a well-known expat watering hole and live music venue. While the group appreciates the space to hold shows, it’s by no means ideal. Myers notes, “There’s a lot of traffic to the bathroom and it’s not really closed down.”
This is about to change – the final show for the season will be held at a new venue. The Groove Yard was a live music venue that was forced to close due to sound issues. Myers met with the owners and discovered they are strong supporters of local theatre. “They said there’s no problem if we want to do shows starting at 8 pm and finishing at 10 pm. So, we’re looking at developing it as a theatre space, a little intimate place. It’s about the same size as The Londoner but I think it will be a little bit more isolated.”
As the troupe wraps up its season in June, they will be holding an open rehearsal which they hope will bring some fresh skills, new ideas and new recruits. These workshops are an important way for the group to gain new members and anyone is welcome. Myers has also begun preparing for the second 24 Hour Play Festival, slated for September. Scriptwriters, directors, actors and technical staff are all encouraged to join in for a weekend of fast-paced theatre madness.
You can see Taichung Improv in action at their final June show in Taichung, at The Groove Yard Theatre. The show kicks off at 8 pm and is $300NT if you purchase the tickets in advance, available from mid-June at Frog 1, 2 and 3. For more details on this and other events organised by the group, visit their website: http://www.taichungimprov.com.
Author: Kate Nicholson
Photos: Corey Martin
Pubished: GuanXi #1 – Summer 2010