Improv at Station Theater: Nerves of Steel and a Boatload of Courage
Photo courtesy of Station Theater Inspired improvisational bedlam is created by (l. to r., standing): Tandi Kone, Laura Helmers, Royal Millen, Amy Birkhead; and (kneeling) Antoine Culbreath.
Improvisational theater, usually shortened to "improv", is a theater performance where actors work without a prepared script, creating characters and situations spontaneously, often on themes suggested by the audience. The performances are almost always comedic, though some troupes use improv to create drama as well. Short-form improv consists of brief skits, while long-form improv seeks to spin out a theme into a more sustained story line. Houston is blessed with a number of improv theater troupes, and Station Theater is one, performing Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The format varies by day, and we attended on a Friday, which features long-form improv.
Improv is a bit like Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, as he did in 2012, in that nerves of steel are required, intense concentration, and a boatload of courage. Station Theater encourages performers by offering on Fridays a free class in improv at 7:30, with those attending admitted free to the 8:30 show. The early part of the performance had audience members formed into three teams of about six or seven members, and performing in sequence.
We are quickly launched into a world where gay lovers break up, even though one isn't gay, and was unaware of the relationship. And then a moustachioed stranger offers to store a backpack in his own car, as there seems to be a kilo in it. There is a lot of chaos on stage, which just adds to the fun and excitement. This section is called Loteria, where everything is left to chance.
The second part of the evening is titled The Supernova Armando, named after Armando Diaz, a Chicago-based improv performer and teacher. An audience member recounts a story from his or her life and the actors riff on it. Here, a beautiful blonde, with a degree in finance and careers as waitress and model, relates how a stunning male caught her eye, returned weekly to the restaurant to chat her up, and then proposed. She had the ring to prove it.
The troupe tackled this theme, much of which seemed to take place in a locale much like the space bar in Star Wars. Then the blonde returned to describe her participation in a competition where the music failed as she was performing, but she soldiered on when it returned, and she won the contest. The troupe used this for its final outing.
Performance highlights involved actors who knew that body language was as important as verbiage. My favorite was a performer adept at use of a yo-yo, pantomimed. As two women fought over him, one of whom was pro yo-yo, one anti, he kept the continuing yo-yo illusion entertainingly vivid. Another wrote vigorously on an imagined blackboard, describing the act of procreation, which in his view, involved buying a bed, then a cat, and mixing them together. He was not to be dissuaded from his belief.
The stage is small, 12' wide and 8' deep, but the ambition is huge, and the energy fills the theater. The audience was almost entirely youthful - improv may well be an important conduit for future mainstream audiences.
There were some improv gaffes. Echoing what one performer has said doesn't advance the plot, and gives the other performer nothing to build on. Portraying a timid, inarticulate, or reticent character is weak, for this form of theater. And circular dialogue gets old rapidly. Yet there are flashes of pure genius. And there is always the energy and the talent. And if some of the talent is raw, remember that even Charles Chaplin had to begin somewhere.
A most entertaining evening awaits at Station Theater, as youthful performers hone their craft. And, who knows, a nascent Buster Keaton may be emerging from the general amusing bedlam.
Station Theater performs at 8:30 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, on a continuing basis, at 1230 Houston Ave. Admission is just $6. For information or ticketing, call 903-271-4303 or contact www.stationtheater.com