Wednesday, Harlequin Productions will premiere a new play — so new, in fact, that it hasn’t been written.
That’s the night that Harlequin’s improv troupe, Something Wicked, will tackle its first completely improvised two-act play.
“It’s just like a night at the theater, except that the play you’re going to see is going to be totally made up based on your suggestions,” said Mark Alford, the troupe’s leader and founder.
In keeping with the play’s title, “ImprovApocalypse,” the one thing for sure is that there will be a catastrophe. At the beginning, the audience will suggest a location where the play will begin and an object that will cause or contribute to the apocalyptic event.
The troupe has also added a few other moments of structure to the play to help move the plot along.
“At the beginning of Act II, we’re going to come out and ask for another suggestion that’s going to shift how things are moving,” said Alford of Olympia. “We want to make sure everybody knows that we didn’t just come up with the ending at intermission.”
Something Wicked, which formed a year and a half ago, performs seven shows per season. Each is scheduled on the second Wednesday of the run of one of Harlequin’s plays. The troupe is looking to perform more often, perhaps at a smaller venue, said Scot Whitney, Harlequin’s managing artistic director.
“They’re hungry to perform more, and we’d like to make that happen,” Whitney said. “I’ve seen a fair amount of improv, and I think these guys are doing a really great job. There’s a wonderful consistency to their work.”
The troupe — whose members include Harlequin regular Alford, Vanessa Postil (“The Head That Wouldn’t Die”) and Brown Edition frontman Miguel Pineda — has also been hungry to do more long-form improv.
“In long form, you get to delve into a single character,” said troupe member Taylor Dow of Olympia. “You get to build a universe that can have a lot of inside jokes and self-referential humor.”
Something Wicked’s Lars Jorgensen, who has performed in a few improvised plays, also prefers long-form work because it allows him to build a character and develop a story arc.
Jorgensen played Peter in Harlequin’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” two years ago and loves improv enough to make the trip from South Seattle for weekly rehearsals.
Keeping a narrative flowing for well over an hour is definitely a challenge, though.
“Long form is a lot riskier,” Alford said. “In long form, if it’s boring, it’s boring for a long time. In short form, if a game isn’t going well, that game is over in 2 minutes anyway.
“That’s part of the excitement of doing it,” he added. “You really don’t know what is going to happen.”
“The biggest challenge is keeping track of what you’ve established, trying to remember not only what you did and said and the traces you made with your character but everyone else’s as well,” Jorgensen said. “It’s about playing the long game.”
But the challenge can be part of the pleasure for both performers and audience.
“Of course, with improv, sometimes things fall a little flat,” Whitney said, “but it’s also really fun to watch how people can turn it around and get it where they need it to go.”
And that’s something the Wicked performers know how to do.
“There was such a difficult moment in the last show,” Dow said. The troupe was doing a long-form improv as the second act. Megan Grugett was playing a character called Mikey, and then Pineda also introduced himself as Mikey.
“Backstage, we all just looked at each other like wide-eyed with horror,” Dow said. “There are two Mikeys; what do we do?”
The improv had been structured with the convention that at any point, a performer could yell, “Cut to,” to travel back in time or change the scene.
“I ran out and said, ‘Cut to the birth of the Mikey twins,’” he said. That gave the cast the opportunity to create a back story and then continue with the show.
The convention wasn’t there to correct mistakes, Dow said. “It’s supposed to be a storytelling device, but in this case, we had two Mikeys, so we had to act.”
“That’s part of the excitement of doing long-form improv,” Alford said. “You really don’t know what is going to happen.”
“I would fall flat on my face in improv,” Whitney said, laughing. “I am astonished at people who can do it. When you get a team that’s really working well together it’s just unbelievable what is possible.”
What: Something Wicked, Harlequin Productions’ improv troupe, presents a completely improvised play in two acts.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $15; $10 rush tickets available 15 minutes before the show.
Information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org.