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,