Spontaneous Combustions

At »MOMENT!« Fifth International Improv Festival, comedy and drama come at the speed of thought

Promising to “put Vienna back on the international improv map”, the experimental Theater an der Gumpendorferstraße (TAG) kicks off the new season by unleashing the collective imaginations of both actor and audience with their Fifth International Festival of Improvisation.

Over six nights, performers will take the stage, supported by the local team, the “TAG Sport vor Ort (Sport on Location) All Stars,” letting the evening’s remarkable ensemble – and unpredictable audience suggestions – take the audience wherever it may. Guest stars will also offer workshops for advanced players looking to hone their skills.

Like jazz, improv is built on spontaneity and interaction – a group of actors creating on-the-spot short skits (and sometimes entire plays and musicals) shaped by audience input. It’s an art requiring considerable skill – setting up situation and conflict, nailing a character in seconds – impeccable timing and, above all, a quick wit.

Tales of the unexpected

Improvisation is nearly as old as theatre itself, from the skolia sung by the bards of ancient Greece, Nordic skalds and Rome’s bawdy Atellan Farce, to the renaissance-era commedia dell’arte, stories and sketches were largely ad lib.  In Vienna, the improvised Stegreiftheater is still practiced at the Tschauner Bühne in the 16th district, in business since 1909. Even in the more structured plays of the Altwiener Volkstheater, “extemporation” was key to circumventing censorship. Legendary Viennese actor/playwright/impresario Johann Nepomuk Nestroy in particular was a notorious ad-libber, often going off script to lampoon current affairs, society or drama critics who gave him bad reviews.

Around the turn of the last century, improvisation was embraced as a training and rehearsal tool by influential theorists like Stanislavski, and even used in psychotherapy by Austro-American Jacob Levy Moreno, who was inspired by Stegreiftheater for his “psychodrama” and group therapy.

Modern improv techniques are the legacy of Viola Spolin,  widely influential on both stage and screen and through her son Peter Sills’ “Second City” in Chicago.

By the 1990s, thanks to improv-heavy TV-shows like Saturday Night Live and Whose Line is it Anyway?, along with competitive formats like Theatresports, its popularity went global.

Jana Carpenter
© Jana Carpenter

Live for the moment

This year’s lineup consists of many big-name players from the world over, including Randy Dixon, artistic director of Seattle-based Unexpected Productions; Per Gottfredsson of Stockholm, working in the style of Ingmar Bergman and August Strindberg; Steve Jarand, an alumnus of Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre that experiments with masks; Jana Carpenter, a ten-year veteran of London’s “Spontaneity Shop;” or Madrid-based Omar Argentino Galvan, who has been on a nonstop world tour since 2000. The home team consists of veterans, including English Lovers Jim Libby, Michael Smulik and Kathy Tanner, known for their twice-monthly Late Night Theatre Jam at the Theater Drachengasse.

Where they’ll go, nobody knows; but safe to say, they’ll get there bursting with spontaneity, engaging the audience as they create. After all, this is something everyone can relate to: All the world’s a stage, and we poor players are just making it up as we go along.  

Sep 15-20, 19:00, TAG. Viennaimprovfestival.com

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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