this is it

This Is It

Team MESS (Australia) 

Powerhouse Rooftop Terrace

World Theatre Festival 16 – 26 February 2012 

This is a fun, largely improvised performance from a Sydney-based group (Dara Gill, Sime Knezevic, Frank Mainoo, Natalie Randall & Malcolm Whittaker), which brings tongue-in-cheek indie film and a fresh take on improvisation to the theatre.

It’s a brilliant concept and it’s certainly a slicker show now than it was in 2010 (watch an older version below). It relies on the audience to drive the show, in role as journalists at a press conference for a make-believe movie, for which we see only the trailers. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Improvisation is widely considered the scariest form of theatre, for actors and audience alike. For those familiar with any level of actor training, the show is like one big, long, extended improvisation. For those without experience in drama games, think 20 Questions and allow a lot of flexibility on the answer-yes-or-no-only rule.

The show itself defies every theatrical convention but that of the suspension of disbelief. We are welcomed as members of the press and the actors are introduced, as any world famous movie star would be, to rapturous applause and blinding camera flashes from (imaginary) paparazzi. With a series of self-indulgent, picture perfect poses, the three nearly-Hollywood-groomed actors (no one was quite styled and polished enough), Malcolm Whittaker, Natalie Kate Randall and Frank B. Mainoo, smile and wave and turn and smile and wave until we feel like flicking to another channel…

I really enjoyed elements of this show, easily appreciating the clever premise and almost believing every word. The environment inside the space was superbly set – once seated, there was no mistaking we were in a press conference – what we needed were a few extra clues early on.

“You are invited to the premiere press conference for the new movie, This Is It. You’re the press…”

Okay, I concede; there’s a pretty big clue there, in the festival booklet. I also knew to expect the self-assured presence of Nathanael Cooper, Arts Editor of The Courier Mail, as host of the event. A knowing wink and inside knowledge of the usual proceedings served Cooper well.

Now, I’m not a lazy audience member. I freely admit that I am, in fact, a bit of a forum bunny but I wanted to hear from the actors, not ask the questions of them. I wanted somebody else to do that work, to have to think that much. Clearly, during the Sunday afternoon performance, a number of audience members felt the same way, keeping hands down and mouths shut. Tough crowd! I could certainly empathise with the performers but without that next level of specific skills, supreme confidence and a watertight connection between them; we were always going to have some awkward pauses. Some would say, kindly, that those moments heighten the tension and add to the drama, or the comedy as it happens, of the situation.

The level of interaction demanded by this show is not for everyone. And when you demand audience participation, you must prepare them for it. Explain how a press conference works before taking questions from the floor. Don’t assume your audience is stupid but don’t assume we know what you need from us either. Or that we’re prepared to play.

Issue audience members with lanyards, pre-printed with the name of the media outlet we are to represent, give clear instructions and help us slip into our roles by sharing with us, the rules of the game. Yes, I’d found that little hint in the festival booklet but when I found myself at the door, looking at a poster for a new film and a staff member concerned only with tearing tickets, without noticing our puzzled faces, I was thrown. Perhaps this was the director’s intent. But I wanted to feel a little more comfortable when I walked into the room. This is Role Play 101. A drama teacher might set up their classroom environment thus: “Welcome to the premiere press conference for the new movie, This Is It. After viewing the trailers for this film, you’ll have the opportunity to ask the stars of the film your questions. State your name and your publication (printed on your ID) before asking your question.” One extended trailer rather than five teasers would have sufficed.

Convincing characterisation within improvisation takes practice and a whole new level of confidence. I expected the actors, after two years on this show, to bail each other out more consistently. Instead, they each had a certain number of prepared lines and came back several times to the same points, bunging on the ego trips, which worked for Randall, though for the gentlemen not so much. They may have simply needed more material and permission to delve deeper into each theme or to spend longer on one or two rather than interrupt another in pursuit of a laugh. Or to have developed that special generousity that is not unique to impro actors, but to very good actors, who know when and how to share the spotlight. In true celebrity style, no one ever really reveals anything about anything; we are no more enlightened about the plot, characters or outcome of the film than when we started out! This, of course, is the idea and the joke works well.

There’s no denying Dara Gill and Team MESS are onto something. There’s a hunger for this sort of challenging, conspiratorial, interactive theatre. We eat up the parody, the sarcasm and the chance to pick our celebrities to pieces. The company has a fairly large following. They have their fans. They’re onto a good thing. Now I want to see them take it up a notch. They’ve found a niche. They just need to work harder to fill it.

This Is It. Team Mess.


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