Improv demands listening from the performers.
That’s doubly true for teams that add music to the action and dialogue, which is what Jacob Shuda does as music director of the internationally known Chicago-based Second City improv theater and school. Specifically, the actors need to follow Shuda’s creativity along with that of their fellow performers.
“At Second City, we sometimes say the music director is the cinematographer of the show because the show is really a bunch of actors and some characters and the lights. The music is really framing the scene,” said Shuda, a 2006 Memorial High School graduate, who is returning to town to perform at the seventh annual Eau Claire Improv Festival Saturday at The Metro.
Shuda, who spoke by phone from Chicago, elaborated on that point.
“If two actors are having a very basic discussion, I can play music under it that might make it melodramatic. I can play music under it that might make it silly or even serious. And that’s going to affect it, much like if you’re watching a movie, imagine watching a dramatic movie but with a score of ‘Teletubbies’ or something inappropriate. The music adds a lot of power. Or sometimes you’ll watch a bad movie, where you’re like, the writing is bad, but the music is making me feel something.”
The importance of music to the improvisational interplay will be heightened with the show at the Improv Festival. In “Immediate Musical,” Shuda, with his digital keyboard, and the five Chicago-based actors he has hired for the occasion will create a full-length production based on an audience suggestion.
Amber Dernbach, director of the Improv Festival and coach of Memorial High School’s Improv Team, said she’s excited to have her current students see an alumnus who has taken improv talents to the professional level.
“It’s just so meaningful for me as a teacher to have him back because I think he was probably 14 when I first met him, like a lot of these kids ... and so actually one of the first times Second City came with a touring company would have been I believe his senior year,” she said. “So he had a chance when he was a high school student to work work with people from Second City, and, flash forward, he’s employed there. That’s pretty cool.”
The long-form nature of a full-length musical is especially appealing to Shuda, in part because it requires extra concentration from the performers.
“My favorite improv is narrative improv because the ability to really listen to each other and weave a story over the course of 30 to 45 minutes adds magic more than even just, oh, look at those people; they’re being funny on the spot,” he said.
“Immediate Musical” can take on depth when the performers are on their game.
“Some of my favorite stuff is when we’re coming toward the end of one of the musicals and the actors, if I have a lot of good musical theater actors in that performance, they start to harmonize, they start to sing previous melodies from earlier in the show and start to really tie things together,” he said.
Shuda also enjoys moments that demand extra skill to make the story work.
“Sometimes the scenes that we’re setting up at the top become so silly and so nonsensical that the only way to finish the story is through some sort of deus ex machina that just is a complete almost non sequitur. And sometimes those are my favorites, where we still wrap up the story, it doesn’t make any sense, but we commit to the idea that it does make sense,” he said, laughing.
Joys of improv
Asked to specify the joys of improv for performers and audiences, Shuda said essentially the same answer applies to both questions, although his response did differentiate what the two groups get out of a show.
For the audience, he cited the unpredictability of the goings-on.
“So even if you’re familiar with a story or something, when you’re in a room and you can see a performance, there’s a different energy, there’s a magic and there’s a tension,” he said. “When you’re watching improv, you’re there and your heart’s always sort of beating a little bit faster because you don’t know what the performer is going to do, you know the performer doesn’t know what they’re going to do. And truly they’re reading off the energy of the room.”
For the performers’ rewards, he contrasted improv with scripted theatrical shows (although Shuda said he also loves those art forms).
“I try to explain it to people who don’t work in the arts as: Imagine you go to your job and 15 minutes in you have the same phone call with the same person every day,” he said. “And then after that you walk to the bathroom in the same way at the same time because for those few hours of the show, your life is kind of on a loop.”
Improv, he continued, “can be a way to break the loop and engage the performer to make sure that you’re not at work, you’re experiencing a thing that only happens once. If you’re doing a good job, it’s impossible to be thinking about anything else. You can truly zone in and be present with the audience and the other performers.”
To be present with the performers, Shuda pointed out, means fulfilling the improv principle of agreement: accepting what a fellow actor presents and advancing the scene. That skill, in his view, requires more than quick thinking and acting chops.
“In order to agree, you have to understand someone, you have to have compassion for someone,” he said. “And we sometimes call it theater of the heart. And it might not seem so magical and spiritual from the outside when we’re just doing jokes. But you can’t accept something as reality and agree with somebody unless you understand them. And that takes compassion and empathy. It really can bond people.”
Or even something more powerful than those emotions.
“And if you’re doing truly a good job, you’re paying attention to every detail, and I’m of the belief that giving attention is love,” he said. “That’s all it is. It’s not having the same interests, it’s just giving attention to someone.”
Shuda will sense that attention again in Eau Claire, something he is “super excited” about. Part of the fun of returning, he said, is seeing familiar faces in the audience.
“Even from when I was improvising in high school, I sometimes see the same audience members, and that was 15 years ago,” he said, “so it’s always such a joy for me to get to come back.”