Improv … Tragedy? Absurdity? WTF, Institution Theater?
Bob Olmstead is currently directing a show that runs on Friday nights at 10pm at the Institution Theater until the end of July. Breaking Beckett is an hour of improvisation that's definitely not played for laughs, that mines the personal histories and idiosyncratic obsessions of its three performers: Marc Majcher, Jayme Ramsay, and Ryan Hill. It's kind of like psychotherapy as a team spectator sport, kind of like impromptu and absurdist drama made really personal, kind of like three people doing some brave, weird, real improv shit up there onstage.
Depending on what one's definition of "real" might include.
"Our show is not about the laughter," says Olmstead. "It's about breaking through peoples' walls. There really have never been weird reactions, other than some stunned improvisers in the audience who kinda had that 'WTF just happened?' look on their faces – which was awesome!"
"I think most people who come to Breaking Beckett know they're not in for a bunch of yucks," says Ryan Hill. "I actually feel more concerned with folks who really know Samuel Beckett, though the word 'breaking' is in there for a reason. I just hope we actually have a similar feel to Beckett or other absurdists at times. I think we do."
"I guess I've always viewed improv as another form of performance-art expression instead of a strict avenue for comedy," says Jayme Ramsay. "Within it I value playing true to the moment and connecting to my scene partner. Of course, getting a laugh from the audience is a great gift – but so are gasps, hisses, palpable silences, and many other human reactions to what's happening onstage."
"I'm pretty comfortable doing just about anything onstage now," says Marc Majcher, "and I'm continually looking for something that'll help push me to do something new, open me up more, and give audiences something that they haven't experienced before. Breaking Beckett fits the bill on all counts. There are parts that are super intense, where all of us are giving the audience a triple-Gallagher spray of feels right in the face, and there are moments of immense tension and silence and uncomfortableness, when we just let them steep in silence and consider what the hell just happened. I love it, on both ends, and everywhere in between."
(Bonus: The talented Content Love Knowles provides keyboard accompaniment to these gambits of structured emotion.)
And what was the origin of this unusual show?
"I went to an improv show at Hyde Park Theatre," says director Olmstead. "It was hosted by John Ratliff; and during the suggestions portion, a young man gave, as his suggestion, 'shame.' When questioned by John about why he'd offered that, he said something along of the lines of, 'I'm gay; shame is what I've lived with all my life.' I don’t even remember the show, but I’ll never forget the weight on that young man's face. And I wanted to improvise a story that would resonate with that young man's journey, something brash that would break through the walls that we put up, that would address our ignorance. Then, a little over a year ago, I ran into an article by the late Thomas Merton that spoke of the importance of the arts – specifically, Beckett’s work – with regards to our spiritual journey. Merton had brought up Beckett’s one-act play, titled Play, which my parents had taken me to as a tween (it totally freaked me out!) I'm not sure why, but it hit me: This is what I want to do. I want to take on the shame that can happen from growing up gay, like in that young man’s story, but presented in a way people could not escape from — an improvised adaptation of Beckett’s Play."
And does it work? Jayme Ramsay thinks so:
"This show asks us to go deep within ourselves," she says, "deeper than we think we can go. And when we've gone as deep as we can, it requires us to go still further. I'm not sure if I could do this with just any cast; I feel supremely secure and safe with each of them. Bob approached us and asked if we wanted to do it and, having performed Beckett before, I was intrigued. Having unconditional support from Bob, Marc, and Ryan helped build confidence in my performance … I admire and respect the fuck outta these people. It takes guts to get onstage and be vulnerable. For some, if there's no laughter, it might feel like death. For me, it feels like I'm pushing myself in a specific way."
And the show's there at the Institution Theater. Whose ongoing entertainments are always highly, well, entertaining … but not always so experimental?
"Asaf Ronen went all in on supporting this project as soon as we were ready to put it up," says Olmstead. "He even helped tech it for the first few shows – such a great ally! Same with Tom Booker, who's been a great mentor and friend for me through all of this. And Sarah Marie Curry, doing her magic, I think – because they marketed it as drama right out of the gate, which took some big-time courage."
And you, Reader: A Beckett fan, possibly?
Or an aficionado of more comedically focused improv?
Do you dare enter this … house of intensity?