For all the rewards musicals offer performers and audiences, producing one can be challenging. The featured attraction at the Eau Claire Improv Festival takes that premise and raises the stakes.
“Immediate Musical,” which will headline this year’s seventh annual event, will require the creation of a full-length musical based on a suggestion from the audience. The festival will take the stage Saturday at The Metro, 201 E. Lake St.
“The whole idea of an improvised musical — just to be that on your game that you can not only improvise as an actor but as a musician,” said Amber Dernbach, co-director of the festival. “I think it’s just mind blowing.”
Dernbach, who is a Memorial High School teacher and the Improv Team coach, spoke during a recent rehearsal at the school’s Little Theatre while, in the background, team members were creating an exuberant blend of acting, laughing and running through the full spectrum of emotions and actions the various scenes required.
Aware of the popularity that musicals garner in the Chippewa Valley, Dernbach hopes that sizable audience will see the appeal of a show composed and performed on the spot.
“We’ve had a lot of people who’ve been with us since the beginning (of the Improv Festival), a lot of repeat audience members, but I think it would be great to expand a little bit and try and reach some people who maybe haven’t come before or haven’t gone to an improv show. But maybe they’ll be interested because of this whole musical component.”
“Immediate Musical” will be created, directed and accompanied by Jacob Shuda, a 2006 Memorial High School graduate who is now musical director for the renowned Second City improv theater and school in Chicago. Shuda is bringing with him five top improv performers from Chicago.
In addition to the musical and the Memorial team, the lineup will feature Shambles, a local troupe of which Dernbach is a member, and Minneapolis-based Glassworks Improv will open the night. Like Shuda, all of the Glassworks members are Memorial graduates and former Improv Team members.
Whether it’s the long-form musical or shorter scenes, improv lets the audience be more than passive listeners.
“What’s so special about it is the audience is part of it,” Dernbach said. “Whether your suggestion was taken or not ... you’ve seen somebody raise their hand, voice their idea, the idea was taken, and then you see that it’s like planting a seed that you get to watch grow in the garden. All of a sudden you see these ideas grow and actual real people create it for you onstage.”
There’s also the matter of every performance being truly one-of-a-kind.
“Whatever you see on Jan. 18 is never going to be repeated,” she said. “It’s like a special thing that just people who were there that night get to have.”
For the performers, the art form also opens the door to unrestrained creativity or, to put it simply, play.
“When I’m with these kids at school or when I’m performing, the kind of imagination that’s being tapped into is so much the kind of creative play we got to do when we were 4, 5, 6, 7,” Dernbach said. “This is great that they’re able to still foster this.”
Beyond just having fun, Dernbach explained, improv principles of agreement, community, collaboration and listening serve her student performers well.
“That built-in trust, supporting each other, it’s a spot where everybody feels comfortable with each other,” she said. “Because the only way that you’re going to be comfortable getting onstage and taking a risk to do something like that would be if you feel safe with everybody in the group.”
Two Improv Team members, senior Estella Torgerson and junior Spencer Rhoten, agree with how valuable they’ve found participation in the group.
As Torgerson put it, “Improv teaches so many life skills to the point where you’re learning quick-thinking skill, you’re learning how to build good relationships with people, and the amount of connections you make through improv is unlike any team I’ve been a part of.”
Added Rhoten: “The main model of improv is ‘Yes, and ...’ And keeping that with you as you go through your life is very important, and I think it’s just awesome. I’ve done this for three years now, and it’s one of the biggest highlights of my year every single time.”
Besides laughing long and loudly at the Improv Festival performers’ instantaneous creativity, and joining the fun with their own suggestions, audience members can take from the show qualities applicable to their own daily life.
“Can you imagine,” Dernbach asked rhetorically, “if the people in your life that you have connection with, whether it’s your friends, your family and then of course, on a bigger level, of world leaders, if everybody adopted the improv principles of agreement and supporting who you’re with?”
For at least one evening, that kind of a world can be experienced as well as imagined.