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Improv with a Hairy Twist: Gorilla Theatre

On a recent trip to Melbourne I had the opportunity to see a show by Impro Melbourne, the self-described “Premier Improvised Theatre Company” of Victoria, who run weekly shows and a whole plethora of workshops for all skill levels. I happened to arrive in Melbourne for the first in their month long series of “Gorilla Theatre” shows: an advanced form of improv created by the grandfather of improvisational entertainment, Keith Johnstone. What I witnessed were six exceptionally talented performers pushing the emotional and structural boundaries of improv, while simultaneously shoving their fellow castmates out of their comfort zones with cheeky glee. Oh, and there was a man in a Gorilla Suit. It was a wild night.

In Gorilla Theatre, the performers take turns to direct a scene; they get to choose their cast and provide them with some basic suggestions with which to begin the scene (eg. Character, Setting, Genre). As the scene progresses, the director may step in at any time to change the flow of the scene; secrets may be revealed, the genre of the scene may change, the director may even provide lines directly to the performers to create a new conflict or twist. When the scene ends, the director is dragged to centre stage and is left to the mercy of the audience. Any audience member who disliked the scene or thought the director didn’t fulfil their duties effectively are encouraged to yell out “forfeit”; any audience member who liked the scene is encouraged to yell out “banana”. A majority forfeit results in the director having to enact something embarrassing, whether that be apologising to the entire audience, or singing a song about how awful they are. I was lucky enough to asked by one of the forfeiting directors to call them and leave a voicemail on their phone reminding them of their failure. A majority banana results in that director receiving a point. The director with the most points at the end of the night wins. Why is a point called a banana? And what does the winning director receive for their triumph? This is where the Gorilla comes in…

One of the cast members is dressed as a Gorilla. They can be used in any scene, but they will not speak, and will not necessarily follow all instructions given to them. They are in control of handing out all points and punishments. When it was first explained to me, I thought the presence of a Gorilla was the most idiotic and gimmicky thing I had ever heard. Having now witnessed it, I can confirm that it works so much better than you could ever expect. The Gorilla will steal every scene they are put in, and eventually, the hearts of the audience. I have been converted to the Cult of the Gorilla. Why is a point called a banana? Because the points come in the form of a literal banana, which is handed to the successful director by the Gorilla. What does the winning director receive for their triumph? They get the great honour of taking the Gorilla home with them, who must live with them until the next show.

Impro Melbourne were funny, there is no denying that. Even during the few scenes that fell apart they could draw laughs from the audience, often by rebelling against or intentionally misinterpreting the requests of their director. What was fascinating was watching short-form improv used to create sincerely heartfelt or upsetting moments. The climactic scene of the show was a conversation between two women: one a professional on her lunch break, the other homeless. Before the scene, the director pulled aside the performer playing the professional and secretly told them that the homeless woman had previously been a nurse who saved the life of the professional when she was a child. The other performer discovered these facts alongside the audience, and in response improvised a backstory about how she eventually quit nursing due to her inability to save any of the children that came through her hospital. This was all to the director’s plan. Then, in an amazing example of making and accepting an offer, the homeless lady made an offhand joke about how not a single child survived, not even the professional woman she was speaking to. The director could have stepped in and pulled the narrative back to her desired path, but she stayed silent, and allowed the other performer to accept this bizarre offer. What started as a scene about a grown woman thanking a homeless woman who once saved her, turned into a scene about the spirit of a child thanking the homeless woman who once attempted to save her. In a heartbreaking final image, the homeless woman takes the hand of the dead woman, and allows the spirit to usher her away to the afterlife, having promised to make the pain go away. This scene was darkly funny and upsetting, touching upon several human fears and desires, and played out in less than five minutes.

Short-form improvisation has permeated the popular consciousness through television adaptations such as Whose Line Is It Anyway and Thank God You’re Here. These shows have set an expectation for what Improv looks like, and we as an audience are generally satisfied when we see talented performers meeting these expectations. Impro Melbourne reminded me what is possible when we are willing to eschew the standard structure. Improv should always be silly and funny, but there is no reason why it can’t also be sincere, heartfelt and unbelievably cheeky.

*All photos are the property of Impro Melbourne

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