It's the night of the show and megastars Basil Shaw III and Chad Krause are missing in action. The understudies must go on. Which of Basil and Chad's many plays will they do tonight? Just shout out the location of your favorite one, any location really, and they'll do that play.
This is the premise for The Understudies, a three-act play improvised on the spot by comedians Danny Jacobs and Seth Brown. The night I saw their show at the Comedy Central stage at the Hudson Theater, Feb. 29, the suggestion was “Vineyard.” After describing the setting of an old vineyard barrel and tasting room, Jacobs and Brown made up, on the spot, an hourlong, poignant Chekhovian drama about two brothers with very different dreams. It was moving, structurally sound and absolutely hilarious.
Jacobs and Brown have been performing short- and long-form improv around town for years, but both felt a desire to slow the pace of their play and bring their love of classic theater into the mix. “Plays have been around since the first civilizations and we still do them very similarly today,” Jacobs enthused. “There's a magic to the structure.”
Doing an improv show as if it's a regular old stage play strips away many of the traditional storytelling tricks of improv: jumping time and space in an instant, playing multiple characters, walk-ons, tag-outs, edits. The Understudies has none of that. All the action takes place on one set (albeit imaginary), between two characters, and in real time, just like a play. The only time change allowed is between acts, but the setting must remain the same.
Yet even without all the improv-y bells and whistles, Jacobs and Brown are able to keep their audiences enraptured for an hour and make them feel they have experienced the journey of a real play by the end. In fact, they have.
To make it all happen, here are five rules Jacobs and Brown follow that would be blasphemy on a traditional improv stage:
Talking about actions that aren't happening onstage derails most improv scenes because it puts the importance of the scene elsewhere. Improvisers usually solve this by cutting to the place where the action is taking place. No such luck for The Understudies, so they embrace it. Gossip, after all, is the lifeblood of traditional theater. “Shakespeare is notorious for gossip,” Brown explained. “He had to [use it] because he didn't have the technical ability to stage most of the action of his stories.” Brown and Jacobs bring up the past onstage constantly to get an emotional reaction out of each other and to debate the theme of the play.
A character lying or being coy usually leads to a confused, deflated scene in improv. “We've been taught that it's anti-'Yes and' to lie,” explained Brown, referring to the central rule of improv, to essentially say “Yes and” to your partner and add something new to the scene. “Once you start to break down the reality of the scene, you can lose all your footing and spiral off into crazy town. But in plays, characters lie all the time. There are literally hundreds of plays where the entire premise is based on a lie. We made a formula to help keep us on the same page: Things said in the first act are not necessarily true. Reveal more in the second act, and create a twist in the third.”
3. Don't Talk
There's always room for a pregnant pause in improv, but after more than 30 seconds of silence you've probably lost your audience. “When you've only got two characters in one location for an hour, you've got time to spare,” joked Jacobs. During an hourlong play, the dramatic tension between two characters better get pretty high, and there's nothing better to top off a shouting match or a shocking revelation than a silent stare-down or retreating to your own private actions. The audience is in such a deep relationship with the characters and their problems that they fill in their inner monologue, just as they would in a play.
4. Talk Too Much
“Monologs, soliloquies and asides are literally the most famous parts of most plays, yet we're advised not to do them in improv because they're selfish,” said Brown. (Certain types of improv include monologues, often as inspiration for scenes, but they're usually not the focus, and not incorporated into the middle of the scenes). “But whatever we see as the theme of the piece — fear vs. adventure, progress vs. status quo, etc. — we craft the monologues to show our characters' opposing views on the theme. You hate change, or you love discovery, you fear the unknown, or you yearn to see new worlds.”
5. Jump to the Edge of the Cliff
“Normal time jumps in improv are usually to the logical beat,” explained Brown. “Like if they talked about a prom in the first beat, they would be at the prom in the second beat. But what we do is jump past the prom to the aftermath to see what prom has done to our relationship. Our goal is to go the farthest point we can think of and start the next act from there. That's where the scary stuff is.”