In preparing for their upcoming play, “Deal With It!,” members of the Allen Community College theatre department are foregoing the usual safety net of a script and are launching themselves boldly onto the emancipated — if, occasionally, terrifying — air of “devised theatre.”
This form of playmaking relies on the actors as creators. There is no pre-existing script. There is no memorized dialogue. The plot doesn’t, necessarily, obey a prefigured arc. Actors spend weeks in rehearsal, improvising scenes that circle around a suite of themes. They hold on to the bits of extemporized dialogue that strike them in practice as dramatically true and reject the lines that ring hollow. When they step onto the stage of the ACC theatre in just over one week’s time, they will have an idea of the scene and of what they’re going to say and of how they’re going to respond to the situation that confronts them — but only an idea.
“It’s, essentially, controlled improv,” explained Director of Theatre Tony Piazza, who, last spring, accompanied a handful of ACC students to a workshop at Wichita State University devoted to the tradition of devised theater. “For this production here, we’re focusing on three main areas: family, friends and relationships. Those are our major subject units, and then we have individual, solo moments in between. … I told the students that I saw this piece as a collage of different scenes, slices from life. Two minutes per scene is about the average that we’re working with.”
For all its perceived looseness, though, there is nothing lawless or ramshackle about this method of theater. In fact, the form boasts a rich — if largely British — pedigree, and depends for its artistic success on the fluent collaboration of the on-stage players and on the rigor of each actor’s intelligence and on his or her wit. As for subject-matter, while the students will be drawing from their own lives for much of the play’s substance, Piazza is at pains to stress that “this is not psycho-drama. So, while we’re talking about issues that young people face, these guys are not necessarily playing themselves.”
According to first-year student-actor Judd Wiltse, the early process of creating “Deal With It!” involved the nine-person cast sitting around a table “just brainstorming ideas.”
Wiltse’s classmate and fellow actor, Ian Malcolm, elaborated. “[Professor Piazza] would give us a topic and give us a minute to write down ideas that centered around that topic. And then anything we liked we would hold onto and try to build a scene around it.”
“We’ve never done a piece like this,” said Wiltse, “where we get to crawl into multiple, different characters in a short span of time. Honestly, it feels nice to be able to open up like that. You can basically be any character you want.”
“Yeah, the best part,” echoed Malcolm, “is that, because we’re making these characters, we can alter them to make the scene much better.”
“Plus, we don’t have to make a guy that everyone loves,” insisted Wiltse, whose most recent role was as Lurch, the lunkish man-servant from “The Addams Family.” “Because, hey, there are some jerks in this world and sometimes it’s kind of fun to play a jerk.”
“Or,” added cast member Tori Whalen, “to play a party girl; a girl who doesn’t study, rarely goes to college, who parties and does a lot of crazy things.”
“Or a raging alcoholic who refuses to admit he has a problem,” said Wiltse.
“Or a guy who worships Shrek as a deity,” said Malcolm. For instance.
“We also have a scene called ‘Guilty Pleasures,’ said Wiltse. “We’ll just be roaming around on stage and then someone will come up front and say out loud what their guilty pleasure is and then fall back into the crowd and then the next person comes up, says what their guilty pleasure is.”
But there’s plenty of levity, too — “Because life isn’t always serious,” said Wiltse — including a dyspeptic soliloquy launched by one cast member who enumerates the ways that Subway, behind its bright facade, is actually an “infuriating restaurant.” (As for why the popular sandwich shop provokes such spleen in this young person — you’ll have to attend the show to find out.)
The stage design for “Deal With It!” will be Spartan. A screen behind the actors will project a title indicating the broad theme that the actors on stage are dramatizing. “Other than that,” said Malcolm, “this couch, these stools, and the clothes on our backs are our only props.”
THE SUBTEXT of all live theatre is surprise. Unlike a movie, where the variables (the pause in the dialogue, the look to camera, the coat getting stuck in the car door) are fixed in a state of eternal return — the same arrangement of visual facts announcing themselves in precisely the same way every time you hit “play” — live theater, even a scripted show, is never the same thing twice.
“Deal With It!” takes this inherent thrill of serendipity and, in spicing it with the artistic risks of improvisation and with subject material rendered from the actors’ imaginations, it ups the ante.
Dispensing with the fustier notions of theater, “a play,” the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in his original review of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” “is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.”
And so for all the ways “Deal With It!” dispenses with the conventional rules of theater, it observes this most essential one: it is, undeniably, a great night out.
For those interested in supporting locally grown theater, “Deal With It!” runs Dec. 1-3, from 7:30 p.m., at the ACC College Theatre. The show lasts one hour with no intermission. Tickets are $6 for general admission, $4 for students, and can be purchased at the Iola Pharmacy or at the theatre door.
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