Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007

Hold on tight: Precipice goes to the edge

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Courtesy of Precipice Improv Company
Precipice Improv actors (clockwise from left) Dan Mont, Ric Anderson, Bob Adler and Michelle James will perform in The Writer’s Center.
These Precipice people are doing something downright scary. Without a script or even a smidgen of an idea, this fearless foursome walks on stage and creates a 90-minute play. Since its inception in 1996, Precipice’s creator and artistic director Gary Jacobs believes the company has taken the improv idea ‘‘to the edge.”

Precipice will perform its cliff-hanging form of improv on Saturday evenings through Oct. 8 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Designed so the play feels like other traditional productions, Jacobs even has a lighting director. The action begins immediately, with the actors asking the audience to name a location – say Wal Mart, and then for one more place – perhaps the desert. With only those in the hopper, the actors are off — and hopefully running.

Unlike the short forms of improv, which usually last maybe two to four minutes and when not working, can die a quick, quiet death, with the actors moving on to the next set up and punch-line, long-form improv offers ‘‘no safety net,” Jacob explains.

And for these improv actors, that’s the high. The relationships between performers demand complete trust and cooperation. Adhering to the principle of ‘‘yes ... and,” improv’s most sacred commandment, is necessary. The idea is simple, with ‘yes’ meaning that other actors will accept what the performer gives them to work with; the ‘and’ indicates the actors then will take responsibility to add something new.

Performer Dan Mont believes ‘‘when it works, it is effortless.” Still, in the early days, when it didn’t work, he felt ‘‘sheer terror. We were too concerned with carrying on the plot and spent too much time and energy furthering the plot.”

Working with Jacobs, Mont says the ensemble has learned that ‘‘If you think too much about the plot, you won’t react naturally to the other actors, and a clever honest plot can’t emerge.”

The first time Precipice actor Michelle James saw the ensemble in action, she ‘‘almost hyperventilated.” Not because the performance was embarrassing or bad, but because she was taking one of Jacobs’ improv classes at the Writer’s Center and knew that eventually she would be doing this crazy tightrope theater, too.

Jacobs insists that when it works, which is most of the time, even ‘‘good scripted theater can’t match it.” Fortunately, this ensemble has been together for about five years and if someone begins to fall flat, ‘‘we know somebody will get us back on track.”

While the art form is synonymous with humor, long-version improv enables actors to explore a gamut of emotions — from joy to laughter to anger to poignant irony.

Life only helps improve the improv for Mont, a Derwood resident, who spends his work days studying how the disabled are treated worldwide for the World Bank. After reading about horrific situations, he has found that performing ‘‘is one of the few places where you can let down your emotions, and it won’t get you into trouble.”

In the improv vanguard

When Jacobs first saw the now-disbanded Star Improv in 1986, he was ‘‘astounded.” Soon, this intellectual property attorney was helping out with the group’s business needs and taking classes. Apparently, he was a quick study; within a year, he also was teaching and directing. But after a decade, the company’s short-form improv began to feel ‘‘stale,” and he wondered if creating a full-blown improv play was possible.

Encouraged by members of a Toronto-based improv team, he asked Michael Gellman of Chicago’s Second City Stage for his ideas. Soon Gellman also began to ponder the extended format and came to D.C. a few times a year to teach Jacobs and his students. Jacobs also started teaching master classes; after five years, a couple of actors ‘‘dared” him to start this unusual theater company. One of those performers, Bob Adler, who was unavailable for an interview, still performs with the group, which fluctuates in size from four to 15 members.

James says that improv has become such an addiction, she doesn’t care if it’s done in front of an audience or in ‘‘Jacobs’ basement.”

‘‘It’s like exploring the unknown,” says James, who uses improv principles in her work as a creative coach helping corporate types with team building. For James, success happens when actors ‘‘try to make everyone else look good, seeing the good of the scene and always staying in the present.”

Improv has practical applications, too.

Precipice Improv Company of Bethesda will perform Saturdays through Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. in the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. Tickets are $12, payable in cash at the door). For reservations and group discounts, call 202-258-6888.