There are no cameos by Big Daddy and no quotes from A Streetcar Named Desire. Impro Theatre’s Tennessee Williams UnScripted is the real-time product of a group of actor-playwrights getting on a stage and writing a whole new play in the style of a playwright whose work they admire. The Los Angeles-based improv group will perform its Tennessee Williams-inspired, full-length improvised play at Florida Studio Theatre’s (FST) Sarasota Improv Festival this week.
This is Impro Theatre’s second time performing at the festival—as well as their second time headlining the show—and with only four cast members (and a technical improviser) making the cross-country trip, the streamlined performances will be the culmination of more than 20 years of experimentation with the UnScripted series and the final stop of an international tour of the show that included performances in Dubai and Oslo.
Dan O’Connor, Impro Theatre’s producing artistic director, co-founded the company in 2004 with the dream of bringing the theatricality and narrative structure of traditional theater to the fluid, fast-paced world of improvisation. Relying on a core group of formally trained dramatic actors—most of whom work as professional theater, television and movie actors in the L.A. area—O’Connor decided to transform what was then a conventional, comedy-oriented improv group into a theater company that performed full-length plays—which just happened to be improvised in real-time and based on audience suggestions.
Today, Impro Theatre’s main company primarily performs variations of the UnScripted series—completely improvised, full-length plays in the styles of famous playwrights, authors and composers—that combine the serendipity and humor of improv with the high production value and temporal structure of dramatic theater.
“For whatever writer we’re doing—in this case, Tennessee Williams—we read everything from his plays to his short stories to his poetry as a way of steeping the cast in everything Tennessee Williams,” O’Connor explains. “The director’s job is to create rehearsals where we can really get Tennessee Williams into our bones, so that when we go out onstage we’re not doing parody, we’re doing stuff that we hope Tennessee Williams might recognize as being like his work.”
In addition to blending the structures of improv and theater, Impro Theatre tries to merge the varied emotions of dramatic theater with the sometimes one-dimensional nature of purely comedic improv. For O’Connor, the difference between Impro Theatre’s bespoke brand of improvisational theater and conventional improvisation is the increased theatricality of their work, the importance they place on having a high production value and their willingness to take the improv audience into a more theatrical space that doesn’t shy away from the dramatic and, sometimes, the dark.
“A good evening in the theater has waves of different emotions,” O’Connor says. “It’s funny to us because real theater tries to look like it’s improvised and, to a certain extent, we’re trying to look like real theater. All of our shows are funny because we’re improvising them, because we don’t have a script, but if the story goes someplace that takes us to a dark place or a serious moment, we’re going to be able to go there and, hopefully, do a good enough job that the audience is just as engaged in that dramatic moment as they are in the funny moments.”
Impro Theatre is one of three headlining acts at FST’s Sarasota Improv Festival, which starts Thursday, July 12, and runs through Saturday, July 14. Impro Theatre will perform two renditions of their Tennessee Williams UnScripted show: one Thursday evening at 8 p.m. and the other Saturday evening at 7 p.m. The cast consists of Lisa Fredrickson, Ryan Smith, Madi Goff and Paul Vonasek. Tickets to both shows are $25 per person.