Calgary improv group takes on world of soap operas
Imagine yourself surrounded by the rolling hills of British Columbia’s Okanagan wine country. You're over-looking the pristine waters of the Okanagan lake, the warm weather engulfs you as you enter a town called Prosperity Ridge.
Seems almost perfect.
This picturesque location may be the ideal setting for a soap opera. However, you can leave any thoughts of a peaceful getaway behind; welcome to a town where the Wrathburns are in control.
Cheryl Hutton, left, as "Mercedes Gehringer" and Jonathan Purvis as "Dr. Garth Melrose" take improv to the stage with Dirty Laundry.
Photo courtesy: Nicole Zylstra
Deceit, scorned lovers, evil twins and a family fortune that acts as a catalyst to reveal the corrupt intentions of the Wrathburn clan, allows this two-hour fully improvised show to make any audience members’ lives seem normal in comparison.
The Calgary-based improv group, Dirty Laundry, are working on their 11th season, which is appropriately titled, “The Grapes of Wrathburn.” The ensemble creates a new production for each season, which allows the members to create and develop their characters as it progresses.
Director and co-producer, Aaron Coates, is enthusiastic about the show’s development and the creativity that goes into it.
“(‘The Grapes of Wrathburn’) has the same conventions and storylines as any classic soap, but we don’t plan any of it,” he said. “We make it all up from scratch. The only thing we do know is what happened the previous week.”
Coates assures viewers that they don’t need to have seen previous shows to understand what is going on, as each episode is an entirely new set. The plot is developed by the actors and evolves from changes that may have occurred the previous week.
There are no rehearsals, just a starting idea that is given by Coates, which the actors can then develop and take in any direction they feel necessary.
“We sort of put together a show that stands on its own on any particular night, but that also has a story arch that carries through the entire season,” Coates said.
Coates describes his role as more of a live playwright than a traditional director. He said he doesn’t really direct the actors to do anything in particular, but rather works with them and watches where they are taking a scene, which helps him to create a plot.
“It’s a collaboration between myself and the actors. I mean, I may call a scene with a direction in mind and then the actors do something on stage that completely destroys the idea I had. I then have to come up with a new scene on the spot,” he said, chuckling.
Tammy Roberts, who has been with the cast for six seasons, became involved with Dirty Laundry after studying acting at the University of Calgary for a year. She has participated in various murder mystery productions, which she said were primarily improvised.
This season, Roberts plays Conchita, a low-status maid for the Wrathburn family. She said her character “often gets caught in the middle of the conflicts between the high-ranking people in the family, but on the other-hand (she) can often get away with things because (she is) under the radar of the Wrathburn family.”
When it comes to acting in Dirty Laundry, Roberts said it’s the adrenaline rush that she gets from improv that keeps her going. “When you stumble across some fantastic joke by accident, it’s just the biggest rush when you hear the audience laughing their heads off. It’s just fantastic.”
Cheryl Hutton, who plays Mercedes Gehringer, the middle child in the Wrathburn family, agrees with Roberts. “It’s so much fun being there, right in front of the audience, and you’re just up on your feet and away you go,” she said. “It’s scary and liberating all at the same time.”
Hutton, like Coates and Roberts, enjoys the fact that “The Grapes of Wrathburn” allows them to interact with the audience through improv.
“To me it’s thrilling to share those moments with the audience as soon as they happen. They’re sort of as much a part of the evening as we are, and I think it’s really thrilling to not have any idea what’s going to happen on any given night,” Hutton said.
“I mean, whether it was a brilliant thing that happened or it was a flop, it’s the joy of acknowledging each other and having the audience be a part of that.”
The ensemble resumes the second half of the season on Monday at the Lunchbox Theatre. The show runs every Monday night until May 16, excluding Feb. 28, March 28 and April 25.
For more information visit www.dirtylaundrycalgary.com