A couple of weeks ago, I attended an improv show called Spontaneous Broadway, performed by the BATS Improv Main Stage Company. I searched all over their website to find out what “BATS” means. It was kind of buried, but it’s Bay Area Theatresports. This improv troupe is based at Fort Mason, and they perform in the intimate Bayfront Theater.
When we arrived at the theatre, we were given golf pencils and slips of paper to write down our titles of “songs that have never been written.” These were collected and placed in a bowl. Six actors came onstage, three men and three women, with actor Ben Johnson playing host as the other five (Diane Rachel, Barbara Scott, Corey Rosen, Jenny Rosen, and John Remak) grabbed a handful of slips from the bowl. They sorted through the titles and selected the ones they wanted to use to improvise a song. The host explained that the audience members were theatre investors being presented with songs from musicals in development. Then each actor was called up to sing their song and tell us the title of the musical it was from (also invented). Sometimes the actors performed a solo, but they were also able to recruit as many other performers as they needed. Even the host got to participate. A drummer and a keyboard player accompanied the actors. They went around twice, so most of the actors got to create two songs. At the end of the first half, the audience members were asked to choose which song they wanted to see developed into a 40-minute improvised musical after the intermission.
I’m still not quite sure how they did it. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not in the least bit musical, so I have no insight into how you make up a song on the spot. The musicians may have had a preset list of tunes, known by the actors, because I don’t know how else they could have accompanied the songs. The songs rhymed, and they were mostly very clever and funny. Barbara Scott did one dripping with innuendo called “Toasters Are Better Than Toast” from the musical Stayin’ Single. John Remak had us shaking with laughter singing “The US Geological Survey” from the show 9.6. Journalists brainstormed stories in Newsroom with the song “A Pencil and A Prostitute.” Diane Rachel railed against her ex’s new squeeze in the song “Wassup Motherf**ker.” My favorite was “The Pub’s Closed, Get Out” from the musical Jolly Old England. This was the song the audience chose for the second act musical.
Because I’m such an anglophile, I was delighted that they were doing a British musical. The show that the actors improvised probably should have been called Fishy Old England. It was set in a fish market and a fish restaurant, starring fish sellers and fish chefs. The British accents were pretty inconsistent, but that just added to the humor. Diane Rachel seemed to have the most fun stretching out her vowels. I really liked Corey Rosen, because he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and he was so committed to holding his invisible basket of fish. The show could have had a lot more English references and a lot less fish, but it’s easy to be an armchair critic, not to mention an armchair improviser. It’s one thing to sit in the audience and think of things you would do, but a different story when you’re on the stage on the spot.
Last Saturday, I went back to the Bayfront Theater for another BATS Improv show called The Life Game. I got to see things from a different perspective, because this time I was a volunteer. It’s been years since I worked backstage as a techie, and it was so much fun to be running around a theatre again. Visiting the lighting booth and going backstage brought back lots of memories. Three of the actors from Spontaneous Broadway were back for The Life Game, plus another four from the Main Stage Company’s group of nineteen regulars. Veteran actor Barbara Scott gave each of the volunteers a welcoming hug, and we were invited onstage for introductions with the actors. I was assigned to concessions, where I sold bottled water, beer, wine, cookies, and candy. I had a great time. Not only did the volunteers get to see the performance, we also got a voucher to see another show for free. This was a particularly good volunteer experience, so I’m doing the improvised Elvis Musical tomorrow, and I’ve also signed up for Warp Speed, an improvised Star Trek. Sorry, BATS, it looks like your stuck with me now!