By William Wang
"Doing improv is like walking backwards," Jeffrey Schwab said, quoting improv guru Keith Johnstone. "You can see where you've been but you can't see where you're going."
Schwab is organizing the Beijing Improv Comedy Festival, a festival where the contents can't be known until the moment of the performance. Improv (improvisational theater) is basically comedy without the script. Players act out scenes based on spontaneous suggestions, often taken from audience members. The Beijing Improv Comedy Festival -- which runs until Sunday in the Penghao Theater -- celebrates the act of going where no man (or woman) has gone before, by hosting a series of performances by teams from around the globe. "We might witness Shakespeare!" enthused host Jonathan Palley at the festival's opening show. "We might not," he mumbled, as an afterthought.
The Beijing Improv Comedy Festival brings together improv teams from a variety of Chinese cities including Hong Kong, Shanghai and Xiamen, in addition to teams from the Philippines, Australia and even the faraway shores of Turkey. Each improv team will strut its stuff, blasting through the most bizarre and unlikely scenarios that moderators and audiences can throw at them.
But what can audiences expect to see? Well, nobody knows exactly, since it's impossible to know what direction players will be shoved in. "You have to trust that you're going in the right direction," instructed Schwab, "because there is no right one. We say always say yes to the situation."
According to him, improv has two basic formats. "There's short-form improv and there's long-form. So in short-form you play a game on stage. You get a suggestion for that scene and it might last for five minutes. It's contained, and it's done. And then you do the next game which has nothing to do with the first one. So in a show you might do eight or nine short-form games.
"Then there's long-form improv," he continued, "where you get one suggestion and then you do 40 to 60 minutes' worth of scenes without any other suggestions from the audience. It's like doing an improvised play. It's all continuous." Long- form improv by necessity is character and plot driven, with less focus on slapstick humor. Schwab claims an affinity to long-form, even though it strikes fear in the throbbing hearts of many improv players.
"The thing about long-form is that you have good memory. Things that happen in the beginning might come up at the end. You have to remember their names and relationships. There are going to be connections. The hardest thing is to find an ending. How do you find ending? You just find it. That's always the biggest challenge."
"The short-form game is contained: if it's not that good, it's over in five minutes. The challenge in short-form is that you only have four or five minutes to make an entertaining scene. You have to be high energy all the time for the entire show. It can be exhausting."
Last Friday, Improv Mafia (a two woman team from Australia) wowed the audience with a Jane Austen long- format piece. This Saturday, Istanbulimpro (a two man team from Turkey) will do their long-form piece. Schwab dubs them "the wild card" of the festival, the strangers in a strange town.
Teams based in China will of course be well-represented, presenting in Mandarin, English and French. But don't be surprised to hear snippets of Cantonese or Shanghainese either. Beijing's Bilingual Improv Group (BIG) exemplifies cross-cultural humor. "There's some people [in the group] who can't speak much Chinese, and there's some people who can't speak much English," Schwab pointed out, "so we have to be aware of each other's language ability when we step on the stage with that scene partner. Singing is one of the hardest things to do bilingually, but," he smiled, "we're working on that."
All proceeds of the festival go to Hua Dan, an organization that supports the children of migrant workers through theater education, and a free Sunday performance will let these kids show off their ability to perform under pressure. "It's one thing to tell people what Hua Dan does," said Schwab, "but it's another thing for people to see them actually perform." It's clear that this is one show he does not want to miss.
The festival wraps up Sunday evening with a Mix and Match performance: different teams will face off in a theater sports competition, where death by laughter will prove how serious improv can be.