The Echo Theater’s production of “Melancholy Leo,” despite the title, ended quite happily.
The actors, all members of The Cinematics, filled the improv story with drama and action, and ended on a high note with Leo ending up not-so-melancholy after all. The actors took their bows to a robust round of applause and exited off-stage, leaving the audience to talk excitedly about what just transpired.
Kris Paries, a performer in The Cinematics, described the audience’s reaction to their first performance, which was acted without a script.
“Nobody believed us, when we opened, that it was improv,” Paries said.
That observation is a huge credit toward the actors. Improvisation is the art of acting without a script. A well-known instance of improv in pop culture is the show, “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” where the four actors on stage (accompanied by their improv music specialists) act out four-to-five-minute skits, not having memorized any scripts beforehand.
The Cinematics perform a different type of improv show. Instead of short skits, they perform two half-hour long mini-movies on stage, a form of improv called long form. Every performance night, an audience member spins the topic wheel and chooses a genre. The genres are random and change every night, so the cast doesn’t know what they are going to perform beforehand.
Melanie Thomason is a performer in The Cinematics and has been with the group for two years. She said she likes The Cinematics’ dedication to the story line.
“I think what I like, when (long form) is done right, I feel like it’s a little more rewarding,” Thomason said. “It’s about telling a good story.”
Improv can often be a launching point for new story ideas, Thomason said. When the group practices together, there have been times after a particularly poignant moment that they have wanted to take that and create a real movie out of it.
“It is really cool because it does spark ideas,” Thomason said.
Long form appeals especially to actors invested in the story, as opposed the actors focusing on comedic sketches like Comedy Sportz or Thrillionaires.
“We are doing improv, but we are also concentrating on keeping acting in it,” Thomason said.
Traditional actors and improv actors differ significantly in the way they go about acting, despite the fact that they are both on a stage. According to Jeffery Blake, director of The Cinematics and long-time improviser, improvising requires good writing and listening, and requires a willingness to act impulsively, rather than getting caught up in the mind.
“People are so familiar with stories and movies and things like that, that it is just kind of ingrained in you,” Blake said. “It is just like, you feel your way through the story.”
Feeling through a story takes a certain amount of practice, Blake said. The actors spent a year simply practicing before stepping on stage. During that time, they watched classic films, broke down and memorized story lines and practiced a lot.
“To be honest, there is a lot of practice that goes into it,” Blake said. “I would say you have to practice improv more than a play. With improv, we wanted to do stuff that was similar to a play, with a great story structure. What we do is we practice story structure. … The idea to know it so well, that the people at the end of the night will be like, ‘That’s all made up?'”