The National Theatre of the World—Naomi Snieckus, Ron Pederson, and Matt Baram—speak at Canadian Stage’s 2011 Festival of New Ideas and Creations. Photo by Claire Calnan.
Improv theatre troupe The National Theatre of the World‘s newest risk-taking experiment, The Script Tease Project, is opening this week. They’ve solicited the first two pages of play scripts—but only the first two—from ten noted writers, such as Brad Fraser, Daniel MacIvor, Hannah Moscovitch, and Woody Harrelson; for the shows, they’ll start out by opening an envelope, reading the two pages (only their lighting and sound designer, Christina Cicko, will have read them in advance), then will improvise the rest of the performance once the lines run out.
Recently, we talked to the in-demand trio about some of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into their ventures.
First off, the three have been careful to document their work from the very beginning. “We’ve recorded every Impromptu Splendor,” says Ron Pederson of their previous improv series. “The idea is, someday we’ll transcribe them. I did the first few pages of the first Judith Thompson play we did… It looked like a good play on the page, even though we were making it up on the spot, so that was encouraging.”
Matt Baram, who had no prior video editing skills, took raw footage of that same series and cut the shows down to two minute highlight reels in the early days. “And then I realized, people would watch the clips online, laugh, and not come to the shows. ‘Oh, that’s what they’re doing, making these funny two minute things!'”
Baram and co. soon learned to release clever promotional videos that teased their onstage work without revealing too much of it. “We did a video for every show we did at Summerworks ,” says Pederson. The videos, and other off-stage promotion efforts, like an opening/closing party each night following a show (a tradition that continues for The Script Tease Project at The Paddock this week) garnered the company a producing award at the theatre festival. Those backstage videos have evolved to far more ambitious projects, like a musical number produced by Mike Schultz and recorded by Waylen Miki (embedded above).
Expertise at promoting themselves helped the NTOW land many of the high-profile writers on their wish list for this week’s Script Tease run. Some of the playwrights they reached out to, like Americans Woody Harrelson and John Patrick Shanley, were unfamiliar with the troupe’s work. A chance meeting on a patio with macIDeas producer Marcello Cabezas led to the pages being submitted by the Zombieland star and Bullets for Adolf writer. Tara Hughes, a member of the NTOW’s board of directors, had corresponded with the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning John Patrick Shanley when she was in theatre school, and passed along a letter from Naomi Snieckus that convinced the veteran playwright to participate.
To help them prepare for the performances, NTOW had each playwright answer a short questionnaire (so they could put together appropriate costumes, props, and a rudimentary set for each show), but there’s little else they can do beyond that: they’ll open the sealed envelope onstage, read the contents for the first time, and then have to create extemporaneously based on the pages. Says Pederson, “We study their works and their style, but this time, what if Judith Thompson decided to start a hilarious farce?” Snieckus, also joking, muses, “Or if Danny MacIvor writes an Oscar Wilde–style period piece! It really is scarier [than Impromptu Splendor]. Thanks a lot for the reminder!”
The Script Tease Project opens May 24 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue), and continues for 10 shows—each featuring a different playwright—to May 29; $20, $15 for students.
This post originally stated that it was Naomi Wright who had put NTOW in touch with John Patrick Shanley, when in fact it was Tara Hughes. We regret the error.