It takes an unusually gifted actor to shine in improvisational theater games like those currently being presented by The Unprofessionals at St. Petersburg's Garden restaurant. Great conventional acting is always a triumph of impersonation, of attention to detail, control of voice, movement, spirit. But the improvisational actor needs these and something more: the ability to invent dialogue with only a split second's warning, a seemingly effortless capacity for protean transformations, a nearly limitless personal repertoire of characters and attitudes.
It's a pretty tall order; too tall, in fact, for the young troupe at The Garden. Virginia Adams, Harry Chittenden, Pat Garrabrant, Laurie LoPinto, Tracy Parker and Paul Soleo have enthusiasm, sincerity, speed and talent. What they don't seem to have (yet) is the imagination with which to transform their raw material — suggestions from the audience — into incisive and memorable moments of theater.
Again and again these likable actors take the phrases and attitudes they've solicited from us spectators and turn them into interesting, moderately inventive, mildly amusing skits. But there's a further step they don't take — to the stunning image, the perfect gesture, the absurdly right (or hilariously wrong) choice of words. Yes, these actors have pluck; but it takes more than that to keep us gladly in our seats.
Not that this group's unusual approach isn't fascinating in itself. "The Unprofessionals" work by soliciting ideas from the audience and then employing those ideas in oddly structured acts of theater. So, for example, the performers ask us to name a passion, and then they tell us a story animated by that passion — with the added difficulty that the five actors take turns saying one word. Or one actor teaches a subject in an incomprehensible gibberish while another "interprets" — and the subject, once again, is one the audience has suggested. Then it's a poetry reading, and we're asked to title a poem that each actor will have to improvise on the spot. Or the troupe tells us it intends to play a scene in three different styles, and asks us to specify both the scene and the styles.
Impressively, "The Unprofessionals" manage almost always to make real theater out of even the least pregnant of ideas (a scene about anxiety rendered in the style of a Charlie Chaplin movie; or the phrase "Waste not want not" as embodied in childhood, adolescence, middle and old age). But the problem is, they seldom manage to use those ideas in the service of something more, something deeply insightful, or aesthetically impressive, or simply very funny. To put it another way, audience suggestions for "The Unprofessionals" tend to act as a limit when they could be a springboard. In two full acts of improv, I never once felt these actors got out of the box that the audience built for them.
Still, I'm glad the troupe exists and I'm willing to believe that in time it could develop into something more satisfying. Already it boasts one extraordinary performer: Wayne Berman, whose always-pertinent improvisations on electronic keyboard are a joy from first to last. The six principals could benefit from a more uniform style of dress (as opposed to their current unexceptional mix of street clothes), but the upstairs space at The Garden is comfortable in a sloppy way, and the restaurant personnel are all cordial as you search for the playing area. Finally, it's always a pleasure to discover an improv troupe in this theater-starved Bay area. There are a few in existence — among them, The Caffeine Kids, who recently put on their first performance at The Improv in Ybor, the Charming Hooligans and, if actor/teacher Dick Schaal has his way, another such group will be around by next January, operating out of a local art gallery.
So I'll make a point of looking in on these Unprofessionals six months from now. If they survive for that long — and I hope that they do — I suspect that I'll discover a much evolved, much cannier ensemble.
Until then, I'll just remind myself that what I saw was a work in progress.
Tempest at American Stage. On Oct. 18, American Stage artistic director Kenneth Noel Mitchell was asked by the theater's Board of Trustees to submit his resignation. Here's what I've been able to find out about how and why things came to this pass:
The main problem at the theater over the last few months was an ongoing turf war between Mitchell and managing director Lee Manwaring Lowry. Three years ago, when the board appointed Mitchell and Lowry to take Jody Kielbasa's place, the idea was to use the managing director position as a check on the artistic director's spending. But it was precisely this division of responsibilities that led to conflict.
According to communications director Jennifer Silva, Mitchell was "inflexible" in his desire to encroach on Lowry's territory of marketing and development. Because of the confusion caused by these attempts, says Silva, "we weren't able to accomplish our tasks because nobody could agree on anything."
But Mitchell says he simply wanted to work "in tandem" with Lowry and that "all areas should be a partnership." And further, he notes, on several occasions he found himself facing encroachments of Lowry's own, as when she sent out a fundraising letter supposedly written by him and purporting to reflect his artistic vision.
The disagreement reached a new level, says Mitchell, when he was out of town in August auditioning actors for the play Spunk. Upon his return to St. Petersburg, he found that Lowry had renegotiated not only her own, but also his salary, all without his knowledge or participation. He complained to the board about this and other issues, at which point Lowry, he says, stopped talking to him. All communications between Mitchell and Lowry since then have been conducted in writing only.
On Oct. 18, the board had a meeting to which Mitchell and Lowry were, as usual, invited. According to Lowry, the subject of the conflict between them came up (yet again) and the board asked both persons to leave the room. Some minutes later, the board sent a delegation to Mitchell's office and asked for his resignation. Mitchell says he was "surprised" by the request, and that he's "hurt" and even "devastated" by the board's decision.
What does it mean for American Stage? That won't be obvious until Mitchell's successor announces the 2002-03 season. Little by little, Mitchell had been adding ethnic and minority programming to the theater's schedule: the African-American-theme Spunk, the Jewish-theme The Immigrant (premiering this month) and last season's gay-theme Visiting Mr. Green. But besides that, he hasn't left much of an imprint.
Still, all these events raise a couple of questions: Doesn't an organization with two heads lead inevitably to conflict?
And will American Stage's board ever be satisfied with an artistic director?