The performers go on stage and ask the audience: What is your favorite childhood memory? Someone answers: Opening the gate. The play ends up about a German scientist out on an evil scheme.
An aging couple ask the audience where they think the pair met. A member says in the carnival. They tell the story of how they flirted with one another as circus-goers.
The audience will laugh at how theater groups act out some of their ideas in the third Manila Improv Festival.
Improvised theater is a nonconventional form of performance art where the audience tells the actors what to perform on stage. The challenge: The performers do not have the benefit of a rehearsal.
Gabe Mercado, festival director from Silly People’s Improv Theater (SPIT) Manila, said they took the effort of bringing together different improv groups from around the world to perform for the Filipino viewers’ laughter.
Mercado, an actor, is most known for his role in a Yakult commercial where he says “Okay ka ba t’yan?” He also hosted the ABS-CBN social experiment program “Noypi, Ikaw Ba ‘To?” in 2006.
“I am very excited about the different groups in different regions. It’s just the wide diversity and variety of all the groups from all over the world that excites me,” Mercado said, adding the groups came from all over the country and the world: Cagayan de Oro, Bacolod and Manila in the Philippines; Warsaw, Brisbane, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Singapore and China.
Diverse in culture
But being diverse in culture could result in a cultural divide. China-based Beijing Collective had the most improvised performance on Wednesday, acting out a random childhood memory, “opening the gate,” which they asked from the audience.
Group member Liz Ashforth said opening the gate reminded her of Germans launching torpedoes from gates, and of a longtime German friend she met in college dormitory. They ended up with a skit about an evil German scientist who used an unsuspecting intern as his guinea pig in a twisted experiment to turn him into—what else?—a German sausage.
When told that opening the gate could probably be a childhood memory for Filipinos being ordered by parents to open the doors for visitors, Ashforth said such a phrase could mean so many things, which made the idea interesting to perform.
“We’re all from different backgrounds so we have a different idea about what that means. In Beijing, gates are very important and Chinese gates tell how important the people or how expensive the house is. Opening the gate is such a good phrase because it could mean so many things,” Ashforth said.
Asked how they improvised it, another group member Jay Wang interjected in an evil scientist voice: “That’s the plan, we didn’t plan it!”
Mercado said culture may get in the way of interpreting an audience’s input, but nonetheless the result could become silly, hilarious, and frankly quite interesting.
“I think there’s a nice interplay, how culture, how an object is seen differently across different cultures. It’s an eye, a lens by which you see another culture,” Mercado said.
Juxtapose that to SPIT Manila’s performance—about cheerleading, as flirtatiously suggested by an audience member of a favorite high school memory—which Mercado said was meant to be more relatable to their home country’s experiences.
In their skit, SPIT Manila performed the experiences surrounding high school cheerleaders—the bias toward the prettier ones—and branched off to other aspects of high school life, like being forced by parents to take a certain college course against one’s will, or braving to take a course in gymnastics despite the stigma of being branded gay. The skit was a microcosm of the typical secondary school stereotypes, added with a flavor of humor.
“In our performance, we just really had fun. We go on a stream of consciousness, ‘hugot,’ and ’yung tumatatak sa puso for us,” Mercado said.
Right in the heart
Meanwhile, Impro Mafia’s performance falls right in the heart of the Filipino viewer. With only two performers, the group enacted a typical aging couple who in the decades of living together have bickered and made up and bickered again through the years.
Of course, a grandparent would not be without grandchildren. The group asked some audience members to be their grandchildren on stage to be given cookies, played favorites with and told off in that familiar mean and nice way grandparents scold their young ones.
Using the “carnival” idea, the group told the story to the audience—their “grandchildren”—of how they met as circus-goers.
“We just wanted to tell a story of a very long relationship, and even if we can’t show every moment from these characters’ lives, we wanted it to be obvious that for years they’ve put up with each other and loved each other and been angry and made up again. And that love is never going to go away, even when they didn’t want to tell that to each other!” said Amy Currie, who played the grouchy, nagging grandmother.
“In every show, our relationship changes a lot. Sometimes, I’m the boss, sometimes she is, sometimes I’m affectionate, sometimes I’m not, sometimes she is … We’re just trying to create a more real set. Your grandparents, they used to be young. They used to go on dates. They probably had parents disapproving of their choices, and that’s what we wanted to talk about,” Luke Rimmelzwaan, the strong-on-the-outside-but-soft-inside grandfather, said.
What stood out as the most comprehensible performance that night was from Taichung Improv, who performed a skit about fishing. Their form: Performing the fishing skit multiple times and asking the audience whom to eliminate. As more members get removed, the fewer actors struggle to act out the multiple characters on stage, and they end up stumbling through it to the audience’s delight.
Eventually emerging as the winner was the flamboyant Josh Myers, who said their improvisation focused on engaging the audience in the game.
“We wanted to have fun and play. It’s a festival. People wanted to have fun, so we carefully thought of what games to play for the maximum enjoyment by the audience,” said Myers.
SPIT’s Mercado said the criticism on improvised theater is the randomness and mess in the story and performance as opposed to the usual scripted, rehearsed acts.
“The criticism about improv is that parang bara-bara, anything goes,” Mercado said.
But he said the best part about it, though, is the engagement of the audience in the craft.
“The way improvisation works is that it’s always a collaboration between the audience and the improvisation,” Mercado said.
The performers in the line-up are: PIP Show from Warsaw, Impro Mafia from Brisbane, Pirates of Tokyo Bay from Tokyo, Landry & Summers from Los Angeles, To Be Continued, People’s Liberation Improv, 3 Dudes Improv and Lamb Ink all from Hong Kong, the Improv Company from Singapore, Taichung Improv from Taichung, the Beijing Collective from Beijing, People’s Republic of Comedy and Zmack from Shanghai, Bacolod Improv Group from Bacolod, Dulaang Atenista from Cagayan de Oro, and One and a Half Men, Switch Improv and SPIT from Manila.
They perform at Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) Theater Center from July 8 to 12. For tickets, contact 09154519116.