It’s understandable that long-form improvisation would require greater character discipline than the more familiar sketch-centred form, but it might not be immediately apparent that there is a notional point to marathon affairs like this. The theory is that when sleep deprivation sets in, it knocks out those brain circuits that make you over-think during improv, so you simply have to go with the flow. Of course, it also adds a bumper dose of surrealism to the mix.
Extempore Theatre (formerly known as The Sticking Place) is the British hothouse of long-form improv, with both musical improvvers The Showstoppers and quasi-classicists The School of Night being company offshoots. Their seventh annual Improvathon ran in 25 two-hour episodes last weekend, and as usual featured alongside the Brit stalwarts a number of colleagues from the Edmonton, Alberta-based Die-Nasty company, past masters at such masochistic marathons.
An overall setting or genre is chosen for each improvathon, with this year’s being science fiction: events were set on an intergalactic cruise liner. This allowed mix-and-matching between all kinds of conceits: on the one hand, androids and holograms abounded, whereas on the other, the ship’s barman appeared to be an 18th-century French nobleman (who almost immediately metamorphosed into a German), with Paul Foxcroft proving especially adroit at inventing whole lists of fantastical board games, TV formats or phone apps.
A number of the main players now have some fame in their own right: Cariad Lloyd has received an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination, and Canadian Mark Meer is the voice of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect video games; gaming company BioWare lent him a Shepard costume so that the Starship Xanadu could have an iconic security officer. (Meer is also a master of energetic eyebrow acting: imagine Roger Moore’s forehead dancing flamenco.) Even the ship’s computer spoke with the specially pre-recorded voice of Babylon 5’s Claudia Christian.
It was inevitable that a Doctor Who-themed episode would be included, with fresh characters including four separate incarnations of the Doctor and guest performers such as recurrent series actor Dan Starkey, unrecognisable out of his Sontaran prostheses. In the event, this was among the least coherent parts of the weekend (or at least of the three six-hour chunks I saw). Far more satisfying, and bizarrely well integrated from a narrative perspective, was the overall ending, in which the source of universal evil was vanquished due to a peanut allergy. Obviously.