The National Theatre of the World takes two pages of a script and improvises them into an entire play.
Here’s how a Script Tease works: Ten playwrights submit the first two pages of a new play. Those pages are sealed in individual envelopes. Over the course of a week, three performers from the renowned improv theatre company The National Theatre of the World—Ron Pederson, Naomi Snieckus, and Matt Baram—open each envelope and read its contents for the first time in front of an audience. They are then tasked with immediately improvising the rest of the work over the course of roughly an hour. This year marks the second edition of the event, which starts on Monday and runs until June 3 at Theatre Passe Muraille. We spoke with three participants: performer Ron Pederson, and playwrights Scott Thompson (yes, that Scott Thompson) and Maja Ardal.
A founding member of The National Theatre of the World, Pederson performs regularly in their improv shows Impromptu Splendor and The Carnegie Hall Show. He also spent three seasons on MadTV and eight seasons honing his chops in Die Nasty, an improvised soap opera.
Torontoist: With all of the improv that you have performed, what’s special to you about this project specifically?
Pederson: At first, I thought it was just going to be an easier way to improvise because you have sort of a blueprint and a trajectory from the two pages. But as it turns out, when you read those two pages cold in front of the audience, you have essentially three or four minutes of reading it to process so much information.
What were some of the highlights of last year?
Every one had a different sort of magic to it. Mark McKinney—we had asked [the playwrights] to describe the setting so we can make a little set—and his was like a Eugene O’Neill description. It was like, “There’s a cot, and there’s a bucket, and in the bucket are bottle caps, and there’s a blanket.”
Is the goal to emulate the style of the playwrights themselves?
Essentially we’re doing the style that the playwright sets up in the two pages, the tone. But certainly the three of us get together and familiarize or re-familiarize ourselves with the playwright’s work, just so if we want to throw in a little motif that’s always in a Brad Fraser play or a Judith Thompson play, we can do that.
Any other playwrights that you would like to land for the project?
We’re pretty lucky that everybody that we’ve asked has said yes. Except, Edward Albee turned us down. We have a super long wish list. I’d love to see David Mamet’s two pages. If Woody Allen wanted to do it, we wouldn’t turn him down.
Kid In The Hall Scott Thompson has a lot on his plate these days. In addition to working on the sequel to his graphic novel, The Hollow Planet, he is readying a stand-up tour with fellow Kid Kevin McDonald for the fall and filming a second season of his webseries, Fruit Blog. Also, he just took first prize at the LA Short Film Festival for The Immigrant, which he both stars in and co-wrote. It will screen in Toronto in June as part of the Worldwide Short Film Festival.
How did you get involved in the project?
Thompson: Naomi just asked me. We did a show together called Wingin’ It, a kids’ show. We hit it off. And I’ve always thought about writing a play and I thought, “Well, I’m sure I can handle two pages.” But I think this gave me the urge to write an actual play.
Will it be a continuation of what you wrote for this, perhaps?
I don’t know. You never know. I mean if it’s really good, what they do, maybe I’ll just steal what they did.
How long did it take you to write these two pages?
I thought I would just take a sketch that I never finished and give it to them. But I decided to actually write two real new pages. So it was a little more work than I thought it would be. So you’ll feel a lot of the resentfulness in the writing. You’ll come out, “God, you can tell the writer didn’t realize it would be so much work.”
Do you feel any competition among you and the other playwrights?
Yeah, because they’re all like real writers, so yes, there is a competition. I’m always competitive.
A veteran of stage and screen, Maja Ardal has written, directed, produced, and acted in a staggering array of projects. From serving as artistic director of Young People’s Theatre to directing at the Shaw Festival, she will still always be known to a select few as Mrs. Potts on Road To Avonlea.
How did you get involved in the project?
Ardal: I’ve known Naomi Snieckus for over ten years. I actually directed Naomi at Young People’s Theatre. She’s been wonderful with me. I was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus in December and she’s been one of my most wonderful supporters with her inspiration and good humour and just being generally helpful. I’m in treatment. I don’t have any kind of morbid outcome, I think I’m going to come through this. When we were just hanging out together, she was visiting me, she said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to do a Script Tease.”
How hard was it to write only the beginning of a play?
I adore launching a play, and then the big struggle comes as you start to work through the play. If this was going to be a play that I continued to write, I think I’d be tearing my hair out, I wouldn’t know what to do next. It’s not like, “What are they going to do with my precious play?” It’s, “What are they going to do with my strange two pages?”
Do you have any improv experience yourself?
I’ve improvised a couple of times with The National Theatre of the World, but I don’t have the kind of skills they have writing on my feet. I go to Second City and take classes and all that kind of stuff, but these are my heroes, these folks. I mean, they really are fabulous at what they do.