Real Live Theater

Long Form Improv: creating a dialog between communities through improvisation

In Behind the Scenes on June 9, 2009 at 3:42 pm

by Phil Gravitt

Camels, photo by Petershort

Camels, photo by Petershort

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – If you only think of humor when you think of improv, you are in for a new experience with the long form improv performance of Arabian Nights, July 10 and 11, 2009 at the Magic Theater, sponsored by Zawaya, an Arab arts organization serving the San Francisco Bay Area.

“While long form improv is presented like a play,” explains Co-producer and director Basel Al-Naffouri, “for Arabian Nights, we will create new stories within the same genre, made up on the spot.  We may turn to the audience to ask for a story title, or something to inspire us.  Sometimes reactions are explored, especially if the audience is enjoying the moment.”

Expanding on audience involvement, Co-producer Mikaela Bennett adds, “There is finite material within Arabian Nights, and the audience gets to participate in new stories within the language of that world.”

Another difference between long form improv and other theater, Al-Naffouri points out,   “There is nothing on the stage.  Improvisers craft a whole world the audience can see with their minds eye, creating a magical experience.”

There is also humor in long form improv.  “We don’t play it for the laughs; we play it for the moment.  The laughs come from being improvised,” says Al-Naffouri.   “There are sweet moments, too, unique because they are improvised.”

To prepare, the ensemble studies the genre deeply to become familiar with all aspects, characters and characteristics, locations of the stories, time periods, and how the stories are told.  “Rehearsal mostly is creating stories that fit within the genre,” explains Al-Naffouri.  The actual performance is the second part of long form improv.   “For the live performance, we have a balance of everything, and take that and run with it, and see what types of stories emerge.”

“There are no stock characters or plots,” Bennett adds.   “You put together any combination to create meaning.   We vary our characters and make sure they don’t repeat.  We access what makes a character different or special.”

This freedom from specific roles makes it exciting for the ensemble as well as the audience.  “We are not limited by our own bodies and physiques,” Al-Naffouri says.  “Each player can take on different body sizes, rhythms, movements, types of speech, the whole human experience.  Each player can be smarter, dumber, bigger, or smaller than they are, with different skin color, origins, nationalities.”

Al-Naffouri is hoping they the Arab community will “come and see something that is part of their culture, and also see improv, where they will feel they are part of the show.”

Bennett and Al-Naffouri would also like to attract a non improv audience, as well as members of the improv community who have not seen arts and culture presented through improv.    The hoped for result would be a dialog between these three communities that would normally not have contact with each other.  “The show is not just about Aladdin,” explains Al-Naffouri.   “It is about getting experience with Arab heritage, to get excited about what is familiar and unfamiliar.”

“We would like to enable improvisers to learn about Arab culture by integrating some of the story lines in their improv,” adds Bennett, resulting in “more diverse stories and different personalities within the improv community.”

The ensemble of players has many years experience, including long form improv in San Francisco.  Classical and Arabic musicians are also taking part, with music made up on the spot, along with improvised singing.   “The musicians must be able to play anything and support the story no matter where it goes,” says Bennett.

Improv shows frequently don’t schedule long runs because improv groups don’t want to do a lot of the same story line.  In keeping with that tradition, this  performance of Arabian Nights will have a short two-day run of July 10 and 11, 2009.  The show is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes.    “The story ends when it ends, they don’t try to stretch it,” Al-Naffouri says.

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog http://www.BAArtQuake.com.

Additional articles by Phil Gravitt include:

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