Last week I got to work with Caque, a Ghent-based improv group that (among many other things) performs a monthly show in English. They are busy bees who usually invite guest trainers and performers; over the years they have worked with e.g. Ben Hartwig (Germany) Jochem Meijer (Netherlands), Rob Ben Zeev (Israel), Nicole Mischler (Netherlands/USA), Inbal Lori (Israel), Markus Kaustell (Finland). Although they are by no means specialized in musical improv. they had already performed a couple of musicals over the last 2 years, lead by the talented Sasha Hoedemaker. Sasha teaches a very structured, broadway-style musical format (which I deeply admire, altough these structured formats are not my cup of tea). This month they wanted to experiment with less structured musical improv formats, so they invited me for a day of workshopping and a performance, and we tagged along my RIOT homey Vincent Van Nieuwenhuyze as a guest player as well.
Here is a report of the work we did, the format we created and how we played it. Video at the end of this post!
As I usually do, we improvised the workshop. I had worked with Caque before: some of their players took my 10 week intensive intro to improvised singing workshop 6 years ago; I did the musical direction for a show with them at GIF16 (Ghent Improv Festival), and I also watched their latest musical with Sasha last March. I noticed they tend to suffer from the Martha Stewart syndrome so we addressed some topics from my Martha Stewart, Antifactual Storytelling and Character-based Narrative workshop series. The group caught on fast and we had a lot of fun.
After lunch we worked on improvised singing. The group knows the basics of improvised singing from the work they had done with Sasha so we had a head start. We started off by playing with one of my favorite exercises and again they caught on fast. We also worked on big group endings with verse/chorus songs. And finally we worked on supporting a solo singer, e.g. with background chorus lines, or jumping in during a chorus.
Then it was time to decide on a format. The group had mentioned they had worked with Ben Hartwig on the format of a Harold a couple of weeks earlier. We decided to mix combine everything we had worked on during the day to present a loosely-structured musical Harold.
Our version of a Musical Harold Format
Here’s the format the way we played it:
- We get one word as a suggestion. We specifically ask the audience for a word that can be interpreted in many ways. Examples that worked well in workshop were e.g. “seed”, “green” and “smell”.
- We have a musical group scene as an invocation, inspired by the suggestion:
- MD provides a vamp
- 3 players present a short and simple tagline song, based on the suggestion. We try and keep the interpretations as diverse as possible, and as far away from present day ordinary life as possible (no Martha Stewart improv)
- When the 3 tagline songs have been established, all other players jump on stage, each joins one of the singers, and the 3 songs are sung simultaneously. We see dynamics, give and take of focus between the 3 songs and the group ends it all clearly, together.
- After that we have 3 beat-1 scenes: these start as monologues, establishing the character and the character’s need. Each monologue is inspired by one of the songs in the invocation. No story elements are provided, tough antagonist characters may be introduced . Monologists are probably the actors that invoked the songs, but that is not set in stone. Each monologue ends with a (tagline) song and a light edit makes this clear to the audience.
- There are no group scenes in between beats – Beat-1 scenes are followed by 3 beat-2 scenes and then 3 beat-3 scenes. Typically each of the beat 2 and 3 scenes will end with a song, but that is not a must.
- After the 9 scenes, we wrap up with a big verse/chorus song with everyone on scene. The goal is to invent a chorus that is heavily based on the suggestion, but agnostic towards the 3 story lines. There are at least 3 verses, done by the original monologists. But more verses are possible, done by some of the protagonist characters in the story lines.
I always claim I have an aversion to structure; some of you may wonder how that rhymes with the invention of the above format – there’s plenty of structure in there. The thing is, as a group we agreed that the above structure is not set in stone, it’s a guideline. It is perfectly if in the heat of the moment we divert from this structure. As long as we put up a great show in the end, I am happy. We discussed this clearly as a group; their perceived need for structure made me chuckle. No matter how many times I tell them “whatever happens we will make it work”, they still wanted to discuss scenarios like: what if the story lines are not connected to the opening songs (answer: that’s fine) what if we mess up the order of the scenes (answer: that’s fine); what if we start a 10th scene by accident (answer: that’s fine); what if the closing song ends up without a chorus (answer: that’s fine).
Before the intermission we played a Romantic Comedy. This is basically a straight story style “boy meets girl, boy & girl split up, boy & girl get back together again”. We agreed there would be no singing, and we agreed to keep it Martha Stewart, to emphasize the contract with the Musical Harold after the intermission. In this format of theirs they typically have a “run for the plane” ending; where the protagonists realize they need each other and have to rush to make it happen – that put a bug in my ear.
The performance was a bit wobbly at the beginning, and I found it hard to underscore in a supportive way. I might have chosen to underscore in a leading way (make bold choices) but I wanted the underscoring to be rather discreet in the first half, in order to contrast that with the musical Harold after the intermission. But after a bit of searching they found a good vibe and I was able to do some fun things. Like a nervous/energetic symphonic orchestra with percussion for the high paced “run for the plane” ending. Good job!
After the intermission we did the musical Harold. The group felt we had to do some audience expectation management; they were afraid the audience might expect a Broadway-style musical and be disappointed. I hosted the performance and gave a brief explanation. We did not mention the term “Harold”, we just told them to expect a performance with multiple story lines and lot’s of song & music.
Suggestion was “colorful” and it was a blast.
Of course a couple of things went unexpectedly, and some learnings to take away:
- The initiation songs came along as planned, but the idea was to sing them together in group as soon as they were established. For some reason the group hesitated, which was strange as that had not happened at all during rehearsal. Also the ending was a bit weird: the light improviser dimmed the lights before the ending – probably because the group was not entirely “together” and not clear enough as to which round was the ending. Video of the opening below: we saw the suggestion used in a painter (OK be it a tad bland), someone on LSD, and another character claiming to be “empty on the inside, but colorful on the outside” – the latter 2 far from bland!
- The group was on a stress-induced adrenaline high; we saw a very energetic show. But the energy was so high that they did not take enough time for the monologues to clearly develop the characters. No harm done, but next time I try this kind of thing I will focus more on the importance of taking your time. As a result of the high energy, the performance was over in about 40 minutes, a bit less than we had anticipated. Still, we saw interesting characters, e.g. Sigrid Laget used the LSD idea to form a US Soldier in the Vietnam war, subjected to military drug experiments. Her beat-1 song was titled “I didn’t Sign Up For That”. Video below.
- Although the group had prior experience with incorporating songs in improv performances, and they have a couple of real good singers, they do not have the routine, and some players really need more practice. We had in total about 10 players on stage, which was great for the invocation. But when it came to supporting solo singers, they tended to all jump in, and the difference in singing potential tended to make that support a bit messy at times. Note to self for next time I do this with a fairly large group: emphasize that when supporting a singer, not necessarily everyone needs to jump in.
I drove home as a happy camper! Proud of the group. And learned something again.