UnderBelly meets Sin City over 12 hours of unscripted drama hitting audiences in November and December 2011. A world premiere of a new theatre format is soon to be unleashed onto Melbourne audiences.

Fat City, a concept by Impro Melbourne's Jason Geary, delves into the underworld for four shows only and promises to be a one-of-a-kind theatre experience. Fat City is a mix of linear and non-linear spontaneous storytelling utilising the talents of a large ensemble cast to build the events of one night, over four performances. The show is an innovative, new theatrical format that breaks the expectation of what improvised theatre can be and over the course of two acts explores the lives of those who inhabit this fictitious world.

Act One offers detailed scene work and a non-linear story telling where the world of Fat City is created for the evening, and Act Two concludes with a completely linear narrative following one of the introduced characters. The stories created will then be turned into prose and published at the end of the season. 

Impro Melbourne have spent the last two months researching the world of crime fiction and all its nuances. From James Ellory to Elmore Leonard, from Quentin Tarantino to David Mamet and beyond. The stories created are completely original, though familiar enough to appeal to the broad demographic who enjoy the crime genre

Jason Geary is a seasoned improviser and has been involved with Melbourne's premier Improvisation company, Impro Melbourne, for over 10 years. He is well known for his character comedy and has made us all laugh out loud in many comedy shows including Thank God You're Here and Skithouse and, of course, on the Melbourne International Comedy Festival circuit.

Below, Jason generously shares his love and passion for impro as well as more tantalizing insights into his new show Fat City.

What, for you, does the word improvisation mean?

Above its actual meaning, for me the word means "Freedom and Connection".

You have been improvising for many years. What were your early influences and when was the decision made that this would be your chosen career path?

I've been doing this since high school. I was very lucky to have two teachers believe in me and tell me I could do this kind of thing for a living. Positive reinforcement for the arts, that's not something I heard a lot in late high school. They set me on this course, and it was the clarity and belief they provided that inspired me. After that it was connection with others who shared my passion for the craft. I've always been drawn to Improvisation over other forms of acting because of the immediate act of creation with others. It's become my career because every time I think I’ve hit the bottom, it falls away and there’s more to be explored. Curiosity keeps me coming back.

You have spoken about Robert McKee (the US creative writing instructor) and his very famous Story Seminar. What were the main influences of McKee's approach for you and how important is the notion of story to an improviser?

improvisers are storytellers. Pure and simple. It does not matter if you are playing a short three-minute Theatresports game or a two-act improvised long form, we are storytellers. By extension, it seems ignorant for me to be an improviser and not understand how stories work. I enjoyed my time with McKee. What I find most useful is his mechanical dissection of how a story works. His seminar is aimed at writers of fiction and screenplays, not improvisers, so it took another level of direction to have his insights fit our art form. A writer creates in a solitary environment, the world, characters and plot are their own to manipulate. improvisers create communally, we essentially create a story together so this complicates matters immensely; therefore having an understanding of not only how a story works, but how best you can serve that story in the moment of telling it, is very important. McKee helped clarify that for me.

One of the biggest keys to successful improvisation is the surprise element –  to other improvisers, the audience and self. Can you talk us through the impulses at work that create this surprise element and what is the function of trust within this environment?

That's a great question, you've answered the first part with the second. It's trust. All trust. If an improviser does not trust other improvisers (or themselves) they don't take risks. They manufacture spontaneity, and that's when improvisation is at it's worst. If you can trust the people you are performing with, and trust yourself to stay present and resist planning ahead, that's when you are surprised by the moment. You need to be able to take your guard down, when you’re not thinking about the possibilities of what could happen and just experience something as it does, everything is a surprise.

How important is building organically (the discovery stage) within the world of improvisation?

Very important.  Every story we tell starts with a blank canvas and in the case of Fat City, it’s also defined by setting and genre. After that the story must grow as we create it – it's the fundamental difference between scripted theatre and improvisation. When the house lights go down on a scripted piece of theatre, the events are predetermined and they cannot grow, change, evolve. When the house lights go down on an Improvised theatre piece the actors are in the same space as the audience, looking at a stage full of possibility and choices. These must be discovered organically by the cast, otherwise the choices feel contrived. A good ensemble like Impro Melbourne can do this. It's a real compliment when an audience member talks with you after a show and implies that “The performances felt so organic and cohesive it couldn't have been improvised. Some things must have been planned.” I'll ask them, does it matter if you know or not? That person was moved by great theatre. Theatre that just happened to be improvised.

An improviser has many of the same obligations while building character that an actor has. What would you say are the main differences between the  actor working a scene and the  improviser working a scene?

In my experience the process of character creation is reversed. In a scripted play, you get your brief, lines, context, motivation and build the character with the director through rehearsal and discussion. You work from the inside out. With improvisation you must build you character from the outside in, you have none of the aforementioned luxuries. Often, when improvising, the first thing you know about your character is their name, perhaps an occupation and an assumed relationship with another character; you’re on stage with as little as that. At its worst this 'character shell' is all an improviser will use and you'll be stuck watching shallow stereotypes on stage for the entire show. At best, as they proceed through the scene/play, the improviser will be striving to discover the true character by making choices that reveal the core of the character. It's a challenge for improvisers to do this well but when it is done well – it’s wonderful. At the end of the scene/story the improviser should know as much about the character as an actor using a script. That's the ideal, that's an improviser pushing themselves.

Fat City is a new show written, directed and created by yourself. Can you tell us a little about it as well as the format you have developed to present it?

(Technically not written though, as it's an improvised show) I came up with the format. Fat City is a fictional four block area in a rundown part of an every city USA. It has a dozen stock locations and the run of the play takes place during the course of a 12 hour period in one night. It's a homage to crime fiction. The format is a two act play. The first act comprises the last 20mins of a story we've not seen the beginning of, then a series of vignettes from the people who populate Fat City, Act two is the complete story of one of the characters that we meet in the vignettes section of Act 1. This process is repeated week by week so by the end of the four shows we have slice of life in Fat City for the 12 hour period. The stories will be processed into a volume of fiction at the end of the run.

Based on crime fiction, what was your inspiration to devise this sort of work and what were some of the challenges that presented during its realisation?

I've always loved Crime Fiction. I'm a big fan of James Ellory, Elmore Leonard, etc. They have sprawling casts full of amoral characters and that's something I've not seen on an improvised stage before. Correction, I've not seen them been done truthfully. That's been our biggest challenge – getting to the core of these characters.  An understanding of genre and style has helped. We've looked at David Mamet plays, crime fiction movies and  television shows. improvisers are like sponges – the more we understand about the genre, the more we can bring to the stage. Breaking through the wall of parody and satire has been challenging but it's fantastic to see where the work has gone now.

Creating empathy for characters must be a huge part of the work you do – what is your hope that audiences take with them after having been on this journey with the story and cast?

Rich, exciting, surprising stories that live with them not only because of the quality of the story itself, but the revelation of a greater truth. I want them to leave feeling like they've seen great theatre, not just great improvisation.

What has been your main joy in creating this work and what is next for you?

Seeing improvisers at Impro Melbourne being truly challenged by the work they find themselves doing, and the discoveries we are making in the process. Next for me is more of the same. I always like to keep on trying to innovate and reshape what audiences (and the arts community) think improvised theatre can be, by producing great work.

Written, Directed and Created by Jason Geary, Impro Melbourne is proud to present this world first: running from 6 November to 4 December at The Space 5 Carlton St, Prahran
Sundays 6, 13, 27 November and 4 December 2011 at 7:30pm Tickets: $20 Full, $15 Conc, $15 Groups of 8 Bookings: www.talesfromfatcity.com