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"Improvised Book Club" & Asking Your Audience to Do Homework

Longform improv is weird. Most audiences need a primer on what’s happening before they fully absorb what the show is attempting to do—partially because the show is discovering what it is attempting to do as it goes and partially because Whose Line Is It Anyway? will always be an expectational force to be reckoned with. Hence, many improv companies try various forms that have a “schtick” to get audiences intrigued and grounded in the (typically) hour-long exploration they are about to witness. I saw one such form/schtick at The Torch improv theater on June 22. The show was called “Improvised Book Club.” Two male and two female improvisers read a book (William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch this month), take the stage, have a conversation about the book, and then longform based on their conversation—returning to the conversation throughout the performance.


A circular photo of a stack of books.
The Torch Theatre Improvised Book Club logo. Photo courtesy of The Torch Theatre.


At the outset, the cast (dressed in street clothes) sat in a semi-circle on chairs gabbing about their initial feelings of the drug-wonderful 1959 Naked Lunch. They kindly gave a bit of overview of the text (for their audience’s benefit, as they had all read it), but always stayed closed off from us—never looking out to the fourth wall, as if to keep up the allusion of a genuine book club. Topics of conversation included drug culture, the “beats,” and the book’s tendency to draw the reader in and then become completely incoherent as the protagonist starts tripping. One improviser described it: “I understand what’s going on! [He mimes a page turn.] Oh, fuck you, Burroughs!” In the second scene of the set, one improviser came out speaking in gibberish. Her partner carried on as if he could understand her completely—even responding, “Fuck you! We’re getting pizza!” to her babble. The first improviser then pantomimed shooting up and suddenly spoke in perfect English. Of course, her partner could no longer understand, although the audience could. It was a clever play on the disconnect drugs create between people as explored in the earlier discussion. Other scenes: a beat poet in today’s world, friends at a gravesite mourning someone who was killed by the hand of health foods and exercise.

I wondered how the performance might have been enhanced had I come prepared as if I were part of the club too.

Audience members were given a paragraph synopsis of the book with tickets, so we weren’t completely in the dark, but all my detailed knowledge was flowing right from the performers to me. I wondered how the performance might have been enhanced had I come prepared as if I were part of the club too.

In the second conversation section, the cast drifted more into the history of the novel. They discussed what they had found on Burroughs’ process and critical reception. At one point, one improviser asked about the indecency laws surrounding the book. His castmates didn’t know the answer. Again, no one looked out at the audience—which, I should mention, was six people. Barely outnumbering those onstage. One of us might have had the answer in our heads, surely one of us had the answer in our pockets via smartphone.

In the second set of scenes, I did feel like I was (gasp) learning at a Saturday night comedy show. I hungered for more. What if I had been able to answer that question floating in the theater? Although the improvisers were pulling at threads from their public conversations, surely there were undercurrents they all felt from their shared reading experience. Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had also been on that wavelength? I thought the scene about the vegan enforcers burning The Joy of Cooking was clever and fun, but what could the buttress of the actual source material have done for my experience?

In the third and final round of conversation, the cast mostly discussed their actual process of reading. One improviser stressed the lack of drug glorification. Another shared that after finishing the book he tried to unwind by watching the Beavis and Butthead movie, only to find a psychedelic scene. He switched to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. An audience member yelled out, “Good call!” I generally frown upon heckling, but in such an intimate space (thirty seats with no backstage), over sincere discussion…it was a relief. The audience finally acknowledged itself in this educational environment!

After the lights were cut to blackout, the cast announced next month’s show—The Things They Carried. Ideally would we all go home, read, and return for July? It is hard to say if that would feel fulfilling or not. We would be “in” on the conversation—but still not participating.

In general, I think we could stand to ask our audiences to do more homework. It’s difficult to ask anything of audiences when just showing up seems to be challenge enough. However, if the audience had some kind of responsibility to the art, perhaps the will to attend would be stronger. This is different than hoping an audience member sees Legally Blonde the film before the musical. This is about giving our audiences a portion of the reigns in active theater (like improv). I question the potential for audiences to come prepared and questioning to the theater, instead of just ready to sit back and be entertained. Even if the “homework” were optional, the atmosphere would automatically feel more inclusive. I might not have read Naked Lunch, but if the person next to me had, and she was part of the generation of discussion, I, as a member of the “audience club” would feel my group had a purpose in being present. I don’t believe theater exists to make its audiences feel special, but why not try it?

Then again, one of the last comments about Lunch by an improviser was “The whole book was torturous.” The three other cast members nodded. Then, they pulled their chairs back and started improvising a quirky scene about a regular guy quitting his job to be a junkie. I, and the rest of the audience laughed and enjoyed—it sounds like more than we would have enjoyed the book. Maybe the cast took a bullet for us.

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