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‘The No. 1 rule of improv is to say yes to every idea,’ says Rebecca Northan, creator of the fantasy comedy Legend Has It. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
‘The No. 1 rule of improv is to say yes to every idea,’ says Rebecca Northan, creator of the fantasy comedy Legend Has It. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Legend Has It: Taking audience participation to the next level Add to ...

Would you like to be a star at the Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays this year? Well, thanks to Legend Has It, you can be – and all you have to do is buy a ticket.

Rebecca Northan’s new comedy, set in a fantasy world called Jaro, opened this week at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary – and every night the actress and improviser is plucking a member of the audience to become the hero of the story, and save the Mumplings from the evil Haldor and his dragon,

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This is the first improvised play to be a part of the festival since it was founded in 1987, and is part of a hybrid genre pioneered by Northan, who dubbed it Spontaneous Theatre. “It’s been a really organic process, the coming together of improv culture and mainstream theatre, a mash-up in the middle,” she said.

Legend Has It came about when Vanessa Porteous, artistic director at ATP and Northan’s old potluck pal, asked the gifted comedian to take what she had learned from an earlier Spontaneous Theatre hit and go further with it.

Blind Date, which began as a short comedy piece at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in 2007 and was then expanded into the full-length show, also involved a single audience member entering a fictional situation – and staying on the stage from start to finish. Mimi, a single French clown played by Northan, selected a man each night to go on a date with; over the course of the evening, the two would get to know each other and decide if they were compatible – before jumping five years into the future to find out what happened to the couple.

That simple premise yielded a surprisingly satisfying and successful show, thanks to the way Northan got her dates to have honest and open conversations about their vulnerabilities. Blind Date embarked on a cross-continent tour and eventually had runs in New York and London supported by Broadway producer Kevin McCollum. It continues on – and Northan has trained a team of four Mimis to take her place when she is unable to perform.

Blind Date had a simple structure, but occasionally it went to unexpected places. Northan recalls a time when one of Mimi’s dates, a seminary student from Saint Paul ,pulled out an invisible gun and shot a police officer during their date, meaning the show concluded with Mimi giving birth to their child in a cell on death row.

By contrast, the hero’s journey in Legend Has It has many more moving parts – and so more places where the cast’s well-laid plans might go awry. There are 42 preset characters played by five professional improvisers (including Northan), each with their own mask. While a performance lasts about 90 minutes, the creators have rehearsed enough different paths that, if they were all followed, the show could theoretically run all night. “The No. 1 rule of improv is say yes to every idea,” Northan said. “But it would actually be all the Lord of the Rings movies in a row if we did that here.”

Rehearsing a show without the star on hand posed its own challenges, naturally. Northan’s answer was to bring in volunteers every day try to “break” scenes, much as a beta tester does with video games. “Not a single person has come in and and done it the same way twice, which has helped us to adjust things and make instructors clearer,” she said.

Audience volunteers have always been a part of improv comedy, but Northan’s Spontanous Theatre distinguishes itself by focusing on one non-professional and letting him or her shine. “If you are going to bring an audience member on stage, you treat them like you would your best house guest,” said Northan, repeating a maxim she learned from Calgary’s great improv guru Keith Johnstone, founder of the influential Loose Moose Theatre Company.

This philosophy made Blind Date a loving, rather than cringeworthy, experience for audience members, while for its selected stars it was often transformative. One wrote to Northan, saying that his on-stage date with her had cured him of his crippling social anxiety, which had prevented him from jogging out-of-doors for eight years. Others have kept in touch and sent updates about their romantic lives – including baby photos.

While Legend Has It is more plot-oriented, it still affords an opportunity for the audience to get to know the spectator-stars – particularly in the “time outs” that they are allowed to take when they get overwhelmed. This offers an opportunity for these impromptu heroes and heroines to open up about their biggest fears.

In the previews for Legend Has It, one hero, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student, spoke about going through cancer with his mother six times – and then defeated the evil Haldor in a slow-motion sword fight. Another heroine, a 13-year-old girl, revealed that her biggest fear was that she might not be good enough – but then conquered her fear of Haldor’s dragon and began “petting it on the nose like a giant pony,” according to Northan’s account.

Because Legend Has It has a fantasy premise, it could easily be lumped in with “geek comedy” – something along the lines of Toronto’s popular live sketch serial Throne of Games (which crossed into the mainstream at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival last year).

But while Northan’s Spontaneous Theatre is inspired by the improv world, it also taps into a number of trends that have risen on theatre’s experimental edges – such as the incorporation of non-professional performers into “reality theatre;” the rise of productions designed for a single audience member to experience at a time; and the breakout success of immersive forms of theatre with shows such as off-Broadway’s Sleep No More.

Don’t be surprised if other creators start to turn to the techniques of Spontaneous Theatre as a way to entice younger audiences away from Netflix and into mainstream theatres. In Legend Has It, the Mumplings speak of a prophecy about a “hero who will come from beyond the fourth wall” to save Jaro. Might Northan equally be a heroine, breaking through the fourth wall to save theatre?

The 2014 Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays runs until April 6, offering four shows (Legend Has It, You Will Remember Me, Games, Same Same But Different) in various venues.(atplive.com)

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