When asked what improvisational theater is, many would probably describe a short form show, a variety of sketches that you have seen at a local improv comedy theater. What they would not immediately think of, however, are two improvisers each establishing one character with nothing but two chairs and two props to drive an entire 50-minute show. However, that is exactly what happened Sept. 23.
Is This Seat Taken? is the brainchild of Rollins’ own Dr. David Charles and his friend and associate, Jay Hopkins. Together, they created a long form show that would force audience members to rethink everything they knew about improv. Their creation was a one-act improvised play without any breaks, where each character would embark on an emotional journey and build an environment and back-story around themselves. Charles and Hopkins also made sure to keep it funny so that an audience would want to see it.
When asked about the creation process, Charles responded, “To make the format even more challenging, the core concept deliberately sought to bend or break some of the inherited rules of improv as the play opened: namely, the two characters were strangers, we asked a lot of questions and allowed ourselves to block each other (or say ‘no’) as the action unfolded.” By breaking all of these rules, the two created a completely unique improv form. No matter what improv show you may see, you will never see a show like this.
Last Thursday’s show was a perfect example of everything they set out to do. The basic storyline was that Charles’ character was a first-time nude model for a beginners’ art class. Hopkins was a first-time art student who was shocked to find out he would be painting a nude form (especially a male nude form).
Throughout the entire story viewers feel for the characters. They realize that the two-dimensional characters you meet at the beginning have far more depth behind them than previously believed. Charles’ character, for example, was doing nude modeling even though he was ashamed and awkward in his body so that he could scrape up enough money to buy a plane ticket to visit his estranged daughter.
Hopkins’ character, on the other hand, had signed up for the art class so that he could surprise his wife with a heartfelt present. These two storylines helped influence the characters’ decisions throughout the entire show, forcing both of them not to quit because each had an emotional investment in the art class.
As a fan of improvisational theater, I loved the show. The rules of traditional improv were thrown out the window but left the bare basics, allowing them the structure and freedom to create “perfect” improv. The “ask-fors,” suggestions from the audience, were expertly woven into the overarching storyline, influencing the story so that the audience felt satisfied, but not destroying what had been laid out before.
Understanding that the characters were created on the spot was even more astounding. Emotions and backstory are hard to create when writing a traditional play, where one has all the time in the world to create the perfect combination. Charles and Hopkins, however, only had a couple of seconds to create everything, and they did so fearlessly.
That is not to say that anyone, even those who have never heard of improv before, would not enjoy it. Almost everyone would have found Thursday’s show amazing. The emotional strength of the characters and the comedy woven into the story would appeal to anyone. The awkward comedy of someone posing nude for the first time and a four-minute tirade on the ugliness of the male genitalia created the perfect comedic element. Writers of current comedic movies could learn a thing or two on the subject from these fine improvisers.
Sadly, Thursday’s run of Is This Seat Taken? was the last at SAK Comedy Lab. According to Charles, “We’ve enjoyed the ride, but I think we’re also both relieved to put this daunting show to rest, at least for a little while!” If and when the two reprise their show, I would suggest you go out and see it. Or, if you invent a time machine, do not go back and save Kennedy, go see this show. In the meantime, go forth into the world and see as much improv as you can. SAK is a great place to see short form, but there are also others on and off campus. The more improv you see, the more you will enjoy Is This Seat Taken? the next time.