To be honest, I had forgotten what it was like to see live theater. It had been over a year since I had seen any kind of theater in person; every production I’ve either seen or have been a part of during this time has been on Zoom. To drive to a real theater again, to stand outside waiting to be let in, and to get our tickets taken and led to our seats after fourteen months of no live theater was certainly a surreal experience. Of course, Unexpected Productions and the Market Theater took many safety precautions for this showing of Theatresports, including running the house at less than 25% of their usual audience and temperature checking every patron who entered the theater. Despite the changes, what they were able to foster through improv was as much performance as it was a social space, fulfilling an audience with much-needed laughter and joy.
Entering Post Alley, I felt a buzz of excitement among the staff at the theater. It was very clear everyone was anxious and itching to be back and doing improv, and the smell of fresh popcorn and busy chatter of voices only heightened the reality of being in a theater space again. I walked into the theater to find about three-fourths of the seats covered by t-shirts decorated with the faces of donors; these enforced social distancing and marked out areas audience members couldn’t sit. A large projector behind a keyboard showed a camera navigating the theater, panning over to patrons as they waved to the camera and to the empty stage as it awaited performers. This camera streamed the show live on Twitch for the viewing pleasure of people remaining at home, and occasionally, a chat with a suggestion popped onto the screen.
Unexpected Production’s regular show Theatresports involves two teams of two improv performers duking it out in a series of improv games. They take suggestions from the audience, perform their scene, and a panel of three judges (who were jokingly booed throughout the show) gave numerical scores to each scene. In the end, the team with the most points as determined by the judges was declared the winner, and the audience members with the best suggestions won small prizes (in this case, a small blue stuffed animal and a unicorn toy). The two teams, Short-Timers and More Dull Wombat were each composed of enthusiastic and dedicated improv performers. They brought energy to their scenes, working with the barriers of masks and face shields to deliver hilarious performances.
Improv, by nature, is incredibly audience interactive. Performers prompt audience members for suggestions as to how to run their scenes, often in amusing ways. In this case, the small size of the audience only made sure that everyone could get a suggestion in, and that they would be heard. At times, the line between stage and audience blurred, and actors made use of the house and its paths to serve their scenes. The human interaction between actor and actor, actor and audience, and audience and audience was something that has been missing from the lives of a lot of people in the theater, and it was very clear just how excited everyone was to feel it again.
Putting on live theater in a pandemic is no easy feat, yet Unexpected Productions pulled it off in a way that didn’t compromise the safety of anyone involved and was also highly entertaining. For both performer and audience member alike, the theater became a spark of light in what has been a pretty bleak year. The warmth of a group laughing together that hasn’t been heard in months was palpable, and the social interaction improv provides, though distant, was enough to be replenishing. Really, that’s all you can hope for in a pandemic.
Theatresports presented by Unexpected Productions is available in-person and virtually every Friday and Saturday at 8:30 pm. For more information see here.