Scotch tape, newspapers, bristle brushes, foam-rubber masks—these are the things littering your junk drawer. They are also the stuff of theater—that is, if you're a member of Improbable Theater, a company that believes the ordinary can aspire to the sublime. And if not the sublime, at least the ridiculous.
The internationally acclaimed British troupe is a favorite of local audiences for such performances as 70 Hill Lane, The Hanging Man, and Shockheaded Peter, all of which have been brought to town by the Walker. Now the group returns to the museum with ANIMO: UK/Minneapolis, a show that company co-founder Lee Simpson lovingly refers to as "the bastard child of improvisation and puppetry." There's no script, no set, and no choreography—just the pile of crap from the junk drawer. Have we mentioned that Improbable has never worked with the show's Twin Cities collaborators, Lindsay McCaw, Barbra Berlovitz, Julian McFaul, Michael Sommers, and Aaron Barnell? This is perilous business, indeed.
Simpson, interviewed by telephone, explains that ANIMO is a show the company has performed off and on for the past 10 years, particularly when they crave a creative jolt. "We often go back to it to find new things, put ourselves back into trouble, put ourselves off balance," he explains. This vulnerability, he adds, offers a unique opportunity for the viewer. "We develop a contract with the audience that we're going to let you observe the moment of creation," Simpson continues. "If we play a scene, the audience will see exactly where that scene came from. Nothing is hidden."
The performers have to be patient and allow things to develop organically. "You try to be calm and awake, because when one is onstage there is a voice screaming inside your head, saying, 'Do something! Be funny!'" says Simpson. And if kids are the audience, as planned for the family-friendly Saturday matinee? "It's much more scary," he explains. "They aren't impressed by improvising. Either it's a good story or it's not."
Followers of Improbable Theater's works will notice they haven't lost their obsession with newspaper and scotch tape, which they've used to create everything from a forest in the English Shakespeare Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream to a ghost world in 70 Hill Lane. "It's immensely cheap," states Simpson. "There's something about transforming the mundane objects in our lives into something theatrical and magical." Under the lights the tape shimmers like tinsel, and somehow the newspapers become as pliable as clay. You quickly forget their actual purposes.
ANIMO is often hilarious, poignant, or, on an off night, a spectacular disaster. According to Simpson, that's all part of the bargain. "Sometimes it doesn't work. If the audience is sitting there and thinking it is really bad, you have to include that feeling. Confess it. It lets the poison out if we can all admit it was awful. Then maybe that redeems it."
He adds playfully, "Or maybe it gets worse and worse, but it's still redeemable. [However] sometimes you go to a play that's actually been rehearsed and it could be awful. That can't be redeemed. Theater is risk. There's no pretending otherwise."