Jane Austen wrote six major novels in her life, but created such a particular world that the Impro Theatre can work within it and figure out some new stories to tell. Like Impro’s co-founder Dan O’Connor did to the world of Shakespeare, Chekhov and Sondheim, “Jane Austen Unscripted” takes improv theater to a new level. Those who come to the New Vic tonight or Saturday night will leave having seen hilarious Austen romantic comedy made up on the spot, with no two shows or characters the same. These are parodies of existing novels, or slash fiction with Mr. Darcy returning as a zombie. “This is something the author would recognize,” Mr. O’Connor says.
Impro Theater started as Los Angeles Theatersports in 1988, and some members of the company have been there from the beginning. It’s a specialized set of skills that extends beyond the skits and jokes of usual improv events.
“I explained to a friend of mine who wanted to work with us that he’d have to be down here (in Los Angeles) for four months,” Mr. O’Connor says. “Rehearsals are two months long. We soak in the style. We invest in the work so that when we do get onstage all of that is unconscious. We practice our scales like jazz musicians, and now we’re ready to improvise.”
Like other improv events, the plot evolves from suggestions from the audience. In the intermission, Mr. O’Connor says, the group huddles backstage to make sure their characters are set. But not, he says, to figure out the end of the play. To prove that true, when the cast returns they then ask for more suggestions from the audience, which then sends the play in another direction.
“Our audiences have a different relationship with us than the usual company,” Mr. O’Connor adds. “They’re stake-holders in the show . . . It’s hopefully engaging in that way.”
To make a Jane Austen play, you need some main ingredients.
“You know there’s going to be a hero woman,” he says. “And we know that she will be highly principled and moral. We don’t know which actress is going to play her on the night. We know that it’s a romantic comedy that will take place in Regency England . . . One of the first things we did in rehearsals was to make sure the guys understood that the ladies drive the narrative. We’re there to support by either being a cad, or a possible love interest, or an obstruction . . . la a vicar who is trying to wed her or whatever it is. We don’t have a template, but we know we’ll need these characters.”
The group tries its best to avoid situations that directly mimic the plots of Austen’s novels, from “Northanger Abbey” and “Pride and Prejudice” to “Sense and Sensibility” (the latter two being Mr. O’Connor’s favorites). Characters that outlast their plot usefulness may disappear and the actor will bring in new characters. They also stay away from Deus ex machina endings just to wrap up a story. “Every time we do it, we try and put in more and more layers,” he says. “We don’t want one-dimensional characters. On the other hand we had one night where we had two Dutch cousins who couldn’t speak English – they just spoke Dutch gibberish for most of the show. But we still got in a good play.”
Over the course of doing “Jane Austen Unscripted,” the ensemble has created over 100 Austen plays, not one of them the same as the others. Even characters that get the big laughs one night never return another night, though their types remain.
“We try not to repeat anything,” Mr. O’Connor says. “In fact we have some super fans who have gone to 12 or 14 shows during the run . . . People come first to make sure we’re not cheating. Then when they figure out we’re not they come back because it’s a good bang for your buck.”
“Jane Austen Unscripted”
When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Information: (805) 965-5400, www.ensembletheatre.com