Photo by Stacey Bode
By Jonathan Spuhler
Determined to Be Funny
When I was in college getting my bachelor’s in voice performance a group came in and taught us about improv. The kind of improv they were teaching was geared towards opera and was almost always serious, but I had been watching a lot of Whose Line Is It Anyway lately and I was determined to be hilarious.
My first day was the second session of class and to catch me up I got to do a scene with a classmate. As I made every attempt to be funny the room grew awkwardly tense, like everyone knew something I didn’t. The teachers stopped the scene and explained to me that my objective was not to be funny, but to listen. Whoops. My counterpart’s character was an abused child who didn’t want to go home; my unspoken job was to find that out. Oh. While I enjoyed the rest of the series it left me wanting. Could opera meld with improv comedy and birth something new, or was it doomed to take itself too seriously? The idea took a back seat for a dozen years.
Then, the Opportunity Came
Fast forward to two summers ago and my phone rings. Cory Lippiello, at that time the Director of Artistic Planning and Community Engagement for the Atlanta Opera, wondered if I would be interested in an experimental collaboration with Dad’s Garage for their Dad’s Garage and Friends show at the Goat Farm, with Colin freakin’ Mochrie. I’m fairly certain I swore at her. Loudly. I mean, in joy, of course. I wasn’t about to curse the person who just revived an old dream. She let me know that my friend and colleague, Abby Halon, and I would be doing some workshopping with Dad’s to get our improv chops up to snuff. I was more excited and terrified than ever.
You should all know that behind our classy, stoic exteriors on stage, most of us singers are neurotic and filthy-minded. And by most of us I mean every goddamned one of us. For the most part perfection is the nature of our trade. Well-studied and rehearsed perfection. Jumping into something that was nearly impossible to rehearse went against our training—and was immensely cathartic. This was an outlet, a way to express outwardly that which we had to keep internalized for the sake of propriety. Yes, please.
Photo By Mike Hillman
Kevin Gillese brought us in with a few improvisors, showed us the ropes, and gave us a couple games to try. Abby and I jumped right in. The fear melted into bliss as we picked up the fundamentals and solidified our plan. By the time the show came we didn’t care that we were sweaty puddles in formal wear, my tux and her evening gown; we were enthralled. Our chosen game, Summer Opera Blockbusters, in which we’re pitched an opera scene and fed typed lines that Abby and I improvised vocals to, was a success. A massive success.
And that’s not all. The whole month of January 2016 singers from the Atlanta Opera are performing new games with Dad’s in their new space. We’ve seen the Atlanta Ballet get involved and be AMAZING! We’ve even done a scene with them. Improvised opera with ballet. ImprOper opened for the Atlanta Opera’s touring show, Pirates of Penzance, at Shakespeare Tavern; a program called Pints and Pirates.
Artistic collaboration, the kind that revitalizes, is my favorite part of all this. If you think it ends here, that things can’t get any better, then you better hold on to your pants. This is just the beginning of the next era of performance.