Local improv troupe, Freefall, throws out script in favor of drama
The idea of being onstage in front of a sold-out audience without a script is the stuff of nightmares. But one person’s terror is another’s ultimate thrill—especially if you’re one of the five talented members of the Santa Cruz-based Freefall Improvisational Theater troupe.
“One of the biggest payoffs is when you’re on stage and you don’t know why or how you’re doing what you’re doing,” says Bob Giges, one of Freefall’s founding members. “You really have no conscious control of what you’re doing. It’s just like, ‘Hey I’m going there,’ and your mind can’t really catch up with it. You do things that are faster and funnier and more intense than your mind could ever do. It takes you over and when you have that experience of being immersed into that so much it’s just ... like nothing else in my life.”
After performing together for more than a decade, Giges and his co-founders—Mathew Schreiber and Marian Oliker—seem to operate as one entity. Crammed into a tiny booth at Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company and nursing a steaming cup of joe, Schreiber joked, “We even finish each other’s … sandwiches.”
“We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s like writing collectively on your feet,” says Oliker. “So it’s great fun, that collective collaboration in the moment is exciting with people that you trust.”
While most improvisational theater—commonly known as short form—relies on comedic skits (see Whose Line is it Anyway?), Freefall has a different focus. “I was interested in adding a dramatic element to what we did,” says Oliker, “I personally was interested in incorporating dramatic and comedic themes in a story. Short form tends towards comedy, and I was interested in doing more than that. We co-created our version of long form in 2000 that has evolved quite a bit.”
Freefall shows typically start with an improvisational movement piece. Schreiber chooses a piece of music that the members have not heard, and then they have to move to it. When someone decides to turn the music down, a scene is created based on the movement of the members left on stage. Once the scene begins, the actors craft a full-length play (generally 75-90 minutes long) on the fly. Themes are built upon, new storylines are constantly being created, and fantasy excursions take the actors—who often play multiple roles—and the audience far away from reality, without the use of props or scene changes.
The success of the performance depends entirely on the group’s ability to react to “offers” given by other actors. “A big part of the kind of magic of the flow of the play is the way in which we edit scenes,” says Oliker. “Someone will come on stage and rename [an actor] and we have to switch on a dime, and we have to understand that ‘I’m not the high school teacher, I’m the grandma now.’ We try to flow, almost like a dance, it just never stops.”
But with so much in the air, catastrophic failure is constantly looming. “[A fan once] said, ‘You have ruined regular theater for me,’” remembers Giges. “Because the risk is so much greater—I mean, the height we can fall from is really really considerable.”
The group experienced that pressure first-hand at their debut show. “We actually call it a train wreck,” says Giges, “because what happens is [just] like cars piling up on a train wreck. Offers get so built up on each other that it’s impossible to fulfill them and to pick them apart. So in this one scene, all I know is I was trying to pull it out and make sense of it at the very end, and I established that two characters were twins, and it didn’t really make sense.”
“There is something so dear and touching about seeing people be that vulnerable,” says Oliker, “We have a love for each other because it’s a very vulnerable art form. You’ll say stuff that comes from deep down in your unconscious, and it’s a very real, raw type of performance. So people get very open and connected.”
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