Imagine a small group of actors being tasked with performing an entire musical that has no script, instead requiring them to take a title and create a full show around that title on the spot in front of a packed house.
That’s the premise of Impromptunes – The Completely Improvised Musical, and company director and performer Emmet Nichols gives Theatre People a greater insight into how it all works.
“We get a title from the audience at the start of the show”, he explains. “It has to be something that’s never existed – we can’t do, say, Cats. It’s got to be a completely brand new title.
“There’s no planning, no discussion, we get the title … [and] we’ve got a pianist who improvises the entire score completely on the spot. He’ll start with an improvised overture, like any musical theatre show, and then away we go! We start improvising an opening number and you get to meet some interesting characters – and they’ll have problems like every character in every story ever does – and there’s dancing and singing and drama.”
According to Nichols, anything can happen in an Impromptunes performance – and the cast loves it!
“It’s so much fun for us because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And I think that’s part of the joy of it, is that both us and the audience are on the same journey of completely not knowing what’s going to happen next,” he says.
Originally from Perth, Nichols has a strong improv comedy background.
“I used to perform with a group called ‘The Big HOO-HAA!’,” he says. “When I moved to Melbourne, I was performing with them. There’s a musical element to the show, but I wanted to see if we could draw it out and make an hour-long show out of it.
He continues: “I got a few people I know from improvisation [and] also from musical theatre backgrounds, like WAAPA and VCA-trained performers, and we combined those two worlds to see if we could make an hour-long musical. We did that in Perth Fringe. We performed it for the first time in front of an audience and it went well, which was a relief – we weren’t sure that that was even possible until then!”
It was 2013 when the Impromptunes troupe formed and has since gone from strength to strength. Following an impressive debut at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, they’ve chalked up performances at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Perth’s Fringe World and, last year, even made it to Edinburgh Fringe. Nichols recalls the experience of performing in the world’s largest arts festival.
“We were terrified!” he says. “For me, personally, it was a bucket list thing to go to Edinburgh. I’d never been and I knew that if I went as a punter and didn’t bring a show, I’d be incredibly jealous.
“When you’re performing in Edinburgh, you’re competing with the best in the world. There are thousands of shows and it’s like a proving ground for comedians. So, we really had no idea how it was going to go.”
Fortunately for Nichols and the troupe, the response to Impromptunes – The Completely Improvised Musical far exceeded their expectations.
“We ended up selling out half a dozen times and getting a four-star review,” he says. “It was unbelievable and like a dream come true! We just couldn’t believe how well it went.”
So, is it a challenge or second nature to the performers to be able to come up with a fresh musical on the spot for each and every one of their performances?
“A bit of both, really. It’s always a challenge. There are things that we know we can do, and do really well, but improvising a whole musical on the spot is hard,” Nichols says.
“The hardest thing is probably making a story that makes sense. Some will make more sense than others, but I think part of the reason why the audience come along is they like to see us working hard and they like to see the struggle because then when we get through and we can deliver, it’s amazing.
“The other thing is we’ve trained and we’ve done this for years and so it’s really fun for us. I find it so inspiring when we get a cool title.”
And have there been any performances that have particularly stood out?
“There’ve been heaps, and if you ask each troupe member, they’ll all have a different answer,” he says. “A really great one that I remember, from Edinburgh, was called Casualty and, of course, most of the audience thought we were going to do something in a medical room. But instead, it became this post-Brexit, world’s gone crazy, Trump-fuelled dystopian future show. What I loved about it is that it was heartfelt and funny and serious and entertaining. If we can get all the pieces to work together, it’s so exciting.
“Another one was called The Trials and Tribulations of Internet Dating. That became an improvised French farce-type of thing. That was very hard to pull off, but we were so excited because we hadn’t done a farce before.”
The performances of Impromptunes – The Completely Improvised Musical at Bondi Feast next weekend will mark the troupe’s first performances in Sydney. Ultimately, Nichols says they’re keen to take the show wherever they can.
“We haven’t been to Adelaide yet [and] we’d love to go to New Zealand. It really depends on what opportunities there are,” he says.
And while it’s an experience that devout musical theatre fans will relish, Impromptunes performances tend to draw a much broader audience.
“I’ve got a friend who’s said it’s the musical for people who don’t like musicals,” Nichols says. “It’s just so silly and so fun. We get a really diverse audience.
“I would like to think that it’s for everyone because there is something about watching people make up songs and dances on the spot that is very uniting.”
IMPROMPTUNES – BONDI FEAST PERFORMANCE DETAILS
Performance dates: Friday 28th – Saturday 29th July
Venue: Big Theatre (at Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach)
Tickets can be purchased here