The smell of freshly cut plywood is in the air as 15 audience members, seated in Space 55's brand-new seating area, buzz with anticipation for the beginning of the Improvised Bookclub.
A few minutes later, Sam Haldiman, the emcee of tonight's Torch Theatre production, sprints onstage. He's a little man — maybe 5-foot-5 — but his energy level and booming voice could shake down the nine tiered rows of seats. He's here to announce that on this Sunday night in downtown Phoenix, he and his fellow long-form improvisers will dish about and act out scenes based on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.
Three improvisers join Haldiman, and the foursome briefly delves into a psychological dissection of the masturbation habits of the book's main character. Think of it as an edgy, college-level English class lecture. During the course of the discussion, an audience member shouts out "palindrome," which means, during the improv bits, the troupe must act out scenes and/or discover plot points based on words that read the same forward and backward.
The Empty Frames Experiment is scheduled to break down the February 25 issue of New Times during the Improvised Bookclub at Deus Ex Machina, 1023 Grand Ave. Showtime is at 8 p.m. Friday, February 26. Go to www.thetorchtheatre.com.
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Despite the arbitrary suggestion, the troupe — whose members have performed in Hawaii, Austin, New Orleans, and New York City — somehow pulls it off without trying too hard. And guess what? It's all actually . . . funny.
I'm definitely a tough crowd when it comes to anything in the theater ballpark. It doesn't matter if it's stand-up comedy, plays, or the long-form improv that's going on in front of my eyes. I'm a local boy, so I know Phoenix and funny aren't exactly synonymous. To me, if a local actor or theater person is truly talented, they probably moved to Los Angeles, Chicago, or NYC long ago.
But these cats are actually quite good. It's not the best thing I've ever seen, and there are flaws from time to time, but what can one expect from an art that's made up as you go?
The Torch Theatre is one of a handful of improv troupes doing original shows like The Improvised Bookclub. Over the past few years, the scene has grown, predominantly in downtown Phoenix, and the Torch Theatre (founded in 2007) is responsible for much of that success. In modest performance spaces such as Space 55, they put on two to three shows each week.
As far as Haldiman, his journey as local improviser is typical, but with a twist. Like others in the community, the Phoenix native began training in short-form at Jester'Z. However, unlike his stage mates, he moved to Chicago after attending the intensive and coveted-by-improvisers iO summer workshop in the Windy City. He spent three years there, working out his performance chops in the city's established scene.
When Haldiman would come back to the Valley for the annual Phoenix Improv Festival, he'd notice that the area's improv community was starting to grow. "I saw the way the scene was evolving, and wanted to get involved and help bring new ideas." He has done exactly that since moving back, bringing some of the ideas from Chi-town to the Torch.
A number of improvisers believe the initial turning point occurred during 2005's Phoenix Improv Festival. Thanks to the Arizona Jewish Theatre Company, which helped to bring talented performers from L.A. and Chicago, the scene finally emerged from the underground (though, arguably, half of its collective body remains in the dark to most).
According to Haldiman, the community is even closer to the verge of taking off. Reason being, the Torch is close to procuring a space of its own, meaning that it can offer a heavier schedule of shows as well as amenities (such as a box office) that will make the experience appear more legit to first-time customers and skeptics.
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Another cool thing that the Torch offers is professional training for all skill levels. After curriculum completion, many grads form their own ensembles; the most recent example, The Empty Frames Experiment, will dissect this very issue of New Times during the next The Improvised Bookclub event.
Yep, that's right. This edition will be fair game for candid discussion and free-form improv. Audience members are encouraged to participate by reading the paper and shouting out their two cents whenever they please.
Maybe we'll sneak in a couple of palindromes just for fun.