The Awkward Party Sees STAGEStheatre Try a Fully Improvised Play for the First Time

It may be a blink of an eyelash in terms of evolution or anti-Semitism, but 25 years is an eternity when it comes to storefront theater in Orange County. With the notable exception of South Coast Repertory, which launched in 1964 and has grown into one of the most highly respected regional theaters in America, our local storefronts (basically, producing entities that tend toward new, original or otherwise non-mainstream plays as opposed to boilerplate murder mysteries or pedestrian musicals, or those that don’t have the word “community” in their title) tend to not last more than a decade. And, yes, we still remember you, Alternative Repertory Theatre, the Hunger Artists, Rude Guerrilla, Vanguard Theatre Ensemble and several others that shined, then faded away.

This is why the occasion of STAGEStheatre’s 25th anniversary is reason for the most sincere round of applause. It’s the second-longest, continuously operating, non-community theater in Orange County and it’s had quite a ride. It began in a ramshackle industrial park in eastern Anaheim, and while it lacked polish and poise, it more than made up for both in terms of frenetic energy. Led at the time by Brian Kojac, the theater somehow managed two spaces in its relatively cramped facilities and produced shows at a frantic pace (30 in its second year alone), the vast majority of them originals. Not all of them hit, but not all of them missed, and from show to show, you never knew what to expect, be it a musical about the New York Dolls, male and female versions of Glengarry Glen Ross, and even something called Pardon My Penis.

The theater’s high-octane producing schedule has lessened since moving to a much more visible space on the hinterlands of downtown Fullerton around 2000, but it continues to stage about a dozen shows per year. Yet it has never produced anything quite like The Awkward Party, a long-form improv piece that, as current head honcho Amanda DeMaio says every night in a recorded greeting, is never the same show twice. Directed by Josh Nicols, whose in-house improv troupe, Spectacles Improv Engine, is co-producing the show, it’s a fascinating concept that most theaters would never touch, considering performers are working without a net, as not a single word in the 90-minute evening is scripted.

The only thing that is constant from night to night is the set (Jon Gaw’s octogenarian-laced, old-lady living room, which is the set for the mainstage show Arsenic and Old Lace and, like The Awkward Party, closes this weekend), the seven performers (Kayleen Barlow, Samuel Forbes, Dennis Johnston, Patricia Kelley, Caitlin Lopez, Aly Lovelace and Matthew Thomas), and the audience’s role. When patrons enter the lobby, they are asked for ideas about what kind of party will comprise the awkward one in the show’s title (the two last weekend centered on an engagement party and a brother returning home from prison), as well as to choose one-word character points of view from a list of about 200, everything from angelic and authoritative to whimsical and wise. After a short introduction explaining the concept (that the narrative will flow from those points of view), the actors retreat backstage, throw on some kind of costume, and emerge moments later to begin a play completely from scratch.

If an actor’s nightmare is forgetting a line onstage, this has to be an actor’s schizophrenic episode, as no one knows where the story is going, when someone else will enter (Nicols said they time their entrances based on “feeling it”) and what their scene partner or partners is going to say—or even who that person is at first. But what’s amazing is that even with some uncomfortable pauses and the occasional off choice, the thing coalesces into an actual story with plenty of laughs and genuine emotional cachet.

Theater is the most ephemeral of art forms because it’s live. A two-dimensional video can never truly do a three-dimensional construct justice. And it’s often said no show is ever exactly the same, as the audience’s energy affects each night and actors might drop a line or add a bit here or there. But, generally speaking, straight theater thespians are an incredibly disciplined lot, and most will deliver a line, make a movement or choose the same choice night after night.

It is impossible in this type of narrative long-form improv (to get technical, this invented form is modeled after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and is called, duh, the Woolf) to do the same performance twice. It’s a real-time collaborative process that begins the instant a patron walks through the door. It is brave, unpredictable, exciting and different, and it will absolutely change your mind about what improv is capable of.

The Awkward Party at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Sat., 5 p.m. $20-$22.

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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