"Freaked out and anxious" — that's how Bobbi Block felt last Sunday on the eve of the first "boot camp" rehearsal for her latest project, LEAP!
Block is Philadelphia's master improvisation teacher and performer. In what she terms a "slightly sadistic artists' experiment," she enlisted veteran stage actors — none of whom have performed improv before — to create long form improv from scratch in performance. "We're setting out to create spontaneous theater that has the integrity of scripted work and the playfulness of improv," says Block.
Long form, says the energetic 40-something Block, a vivacious presence distinguished by her long shock of curly black hair and contagious smile, "is a collage, much like jazz: an opening, a theme, then all the musicians riff, and the tune comes back." Most audiences know short-form improv: the manic games popularized locally by mainstays ComedySportz (two shows every Saturday night at The Playground at the Adrienne); nationally by Second City in Chicago, New York City and Toronto; and on television by Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Moreover, Block — who's worked short form with ComedySportz, long form with her groups Lunchlady Doris and Tongue & Groove (both of whom are performing in this year's Fringe) and storytelling improv with Playback — sees improv as a great outlet for realism. LEAP! features actors who are working professionals — and who are, she reveals, "scared to death of improv."
LEAP! will be unique among local long-form projects, including musician Alex Bechtel and a lighting designer improvising live along with actors Megan Bellwar, Tom Byrn, Joe Guzman, Ben Lloyd and Catharine Slusar — who between them boast a slew of Barrymore nominations and awards, and who by any measure are among Philly's finest. "The vision for LEAP! or any improv is to form a group mind with the actors and the audience," Block explains, before apologizing for waxing esoteric. "When you get an audience suggestion, deconstruct it so that in the end, all's connected."
Block started by inviting actors to free workshops, but she soon realized that union pros have to be paid to train and rehearse, lest they be forced to bail for the next paying gig. Live Arts/Fringe Producing Director Nick Stuccio liked the LEAP! idea, underwriting the show so that actors who've gone their whole careers performing scripted work could train full-time to base an hourlong show on audience suggestions. "I'm honored to be working with them," Block gushes. "I've never worked with stage actors of this caliber before."
No one's resting on laurels, though. Improv "takes a lot of skill to make it look like we're just getting up and playing," Block points out. "And I'm assuming that after seven intense days, we'll have the feeling of comfort and security actors need."
In contrast, Tongue & Groove met weekly for over a year before performing, and Lunchlady Doris evolved gradually from the tight ComedySportz ensemble over a decade ago.
LEAP! audiences will be asked to share, via a questionnaire, personal events and feelings, and will be invited to ask questions of the actors. From this raw material, the players will spontaneously create characters through monologues, who will then interact in scenes. Music and lights might follow the actors, or could initiate scenes.
Block found inspiration not only in her own work, but through improv around the country. "The first time I saw TJ & Dave," she recalls about a Chicago-based duo who perform in New York annually, "I couldn't believe how much it seemed like a scripted show." Her idea to use stage actors grew out of subbing at the University of the Arts. "I taught juniors, who had just come off Meisner training" — the emotional realism philosophy of Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse — "and was thrilled with their insights. They were thinking like actors, not fast and wacky like typical comedy improv performers."
They confirmed her theories, which culminate in the belief that improv is a legitimate performance style. "I'd love people to see it as an art," she muses, "sort of like movement theater, which now has its own label and recognition, its own genre and discipline." (And with nationally known local companies like Pig Iron and New Paradise leading the way — maybe long-form improv could reach their level?)
"My interest in exploring realism," says Block, "is that what's real could make you laugh, could cut you, could pull your heart. ... It isn't just pushing, pushing, pushing for the funny. I have great respect for comedians — but I want more."
LEAP!, Sept. 7-8, 9 p.m.; Sept. 9, 2 p.m., $15, Arcadia Stage, Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. Second St. • Lunchlady Doris, Aug. 31 and Sept. 8, 9 p.m.; Sept. 1, 6 p.m.; Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 7, 10 p.m., $10, 2nd Stage @ the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. • Tongue & Groove, Sept. 13-15, 9 p.m., $10, 2nd Stage @ the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.