by Kate Conner-Ruben
Scene: A guy's apartment; couch, table, a couple of chairs and in the corner a barrel of monkeys. Enter the guy and a girl, after a first date. He: "Can I get you something to drink?" She: "I'd like chocolate Sprite." He: "Oh! An aristocrat!" They laugh. He prepares the beverage. Suddenly the monkeys begin to shriek madly. She: "Oh, my God! What was that?" A pause. He: "Oh. That's an air-conditioner." She: "Doesn't an air-conditioner make more of a whirring sound?" He: "Isn't that a whirring sound?" The girl takes a few more sips of chocolate Sprite. The monkeys shriek anew. She: "What is that sound?!!!" He: "Uh that's a pie." She: "Well, it doesn't sound like a pie." He: "What does a pie sound like?"
No, it's not Brecht. Rather, it's the kind of theater that emerges from the comically rich gastrointestinal tract of Tilt, Ann Arbor's new improv theater company. For about a year Tilt's been offering workshops, assembling a cast, rehearsing, and giving informal performances around town. The group's work has paid off big time, if last month's show in a scrappy downtown dance studio is any indication. It was SRO for this bare-bones, fluorescent-lit night of spontaneous combustion.
Improvisation simply means the creation of performance in the moment. There are lots of kinds of improv: contact improv in dance, theatrical improv that seeks to promote causes and social change, improv for therapy, improv for education, and let's not forget jazz. But Tilt messes around quite capably with the comedic kind made famous by all those Second City franchises.
Tilt performers use games as the framework for creating theater. In "Slide Show" three actors create "slides" that are then interpreted by a panel of "experts" on our night, an authority on scuba diving. In another game the actors line up and tell a story suggested by an audience member. The title? "We Used to Be Charcoal Briquettes." The catch
is that there's a "conductor" who indicates who's doing the telling at any given moment. Anyone who stammers, makes no sense, cracks up, etc., is immediately condemned to "death" by the audience. In still another game, actors concoct a simple scene, such as a guy in a doctor's waiting room and the nurse who comes to check him in, and then perform it in the style of various film genres (such as film noir, sci-fi, or Muppets) that the audience has shouted out.
Comedy like this could resemble embarrassing parlor-game shenanigans but in Tilt's hands it doesn't, because these people are really good at it. Improv is hard. I know. I have tried it once. It requires an ability to think on many levels at the same time, to go full force with whatever situation or line is handed to you, to switch gears on a dime, and to be funny all the while.
Thankfully, I don't have to do it myself. I can just watch Tilt, which performs at the Ann Arbor Civic Theater on Saturday, February 9.
[Originally published in February, 2002.]