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Impro Theater's Chekhov Unscripted: How to Improvise an Homage to Uncle Vanya

Ryan Smith in Chekhov Unscripted
Ryan Smith in Chekhov Unscripted
Dan O'Connor

In 1999, after 11 years of wringing laughs from willing audiences through competitive comedy and newfangled styles of longform improvisation, Impro Theater devised an upstart project called Shakespeare Unscripted that would turn into an enormously successful franchise and shape the troupe's entry into the 21st century.

The "unscripted" concept has been transferred to the works of

‚Äč

Jane Austen, Stephen Sondheim and Charles Dickens. This fall in Pasadena, Impro is filling houses with its popular Tennessee Williams Unscripted along with brand new versions paying obeisance to Anton Chekhov and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone .

Twilight Zone Unscripted
Twilight Zone Unscripted

In addition to its local gigs, Impro regularly performs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as landing national and international gigs from Denver to Paris to Melbourne.

Though the company's trade has always been uproarious comic improvisation, artistic director Dan O'Connor insists the concept is not parody, but homage. "Everybody in the ensemble comes from a classical drama school education," O'Connor explains, "We also have an improv backgrounds and we are writers and directors. All that kind of meets in the middle and we get to go out every night and create a completely different play."

Each play begins with an "ask for" (improv lingo for suggestion) from the audience. O'Connor explains, "For Chekhov we've been asking what the view out the front window is. For Williams: a real heirloom from an audience member's family and an animal. My favorite one was a set of porcelain heads and a monkey." With that hint of suggestion the company bursts into a full length drama or, in the case of Twilight Zone, five 22-minute episodes.

The main rule is to stay away from caricature and let the characters and situations drive the comedy. O'Connor recalls, "One of the wackiest times was a Chekhov -- the house was slowly destroyed by termites literally eating the estate. A perfect metaphor for the crumbling of this family.

"Chekhov is fascinating because his plays have no heroes," O'Connor adds. "It's like reality TV. When his plays initially premiered people were stunned because it was the first time audiences saw people like themselves on the stage. With Chekhov's we get to bring up a subject, deconstruct it, tear it apart and investigate it all in a dramatic way. But no one really changes during the course of a Chekhov play."

Chekhov Unscripted is at the Impro Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse (in the Carrie Hamilton Theater), 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m.; Sat. 10 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. (In rep. with Tennessee Williams Unscripted and Twilight Zone Unscripted); thru Nov. 13. (626) 356-PLAY, www.improtheatre.com

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