Surreal is one of those words overused and misused to the extent it barely has meaning anymore. See also: random, quirky, bizarre and genius. Ready to de-cliche these words and then some over the course of weekend was Back to the Studio, the 33-and-a-half hour Improvathon that took place in the confines of the Kazimier while the rest of you got on with your busy lives.
A gaggle of performers and crew, an artist, and one solitary audience member stayed the distance for the entire crazy event, others came and went, some even stayed overnight in sleeping bags. Staged by comedy group Impropriety, in association with Canadian peers DIE-Nasty (including Dana Andersen, who used to perform with Mike Myers), they created an alternate universe, their very own city that never sleeps.
Set in TV studio 33.5 (“high on your dial, low on your self-esteem”) the fun began straight away at 1pm on Saturday afternoon, as each character was introduced individually. They did this at the start of every episode, every two hours, so each performer could explain themselves to new audience members and recap the plot for anyone else.
We met characters like Isabel End, the evil boss; Krom the Barbarian was the star of the station’s hit show; Cameron Action a cocky producer; Guy Tonight the newsreader; Candy Cummings his child porn star ex-wife in drag (really), I could go on.
Throwing in Sophie Grabol off the Killing and Aileen Quinn, the grown up star of Annie in a comedy orange wig, for no reason at all, this nonsensical mishmash of in-jokes, cheap shots, made up songs and moments of pure comedy gold was addictive from the off.
The episodes flew by as each scene was set up by the narrators at a table to the side of the stage instructing the actors. This was the kind of improv people would recognise: “Mike Oxlong (!) and Goldie Lawn meet in the office to discuss their contracts in a scene that ends with a dramatic twist.”
Over the course of the first episodes, alliances were formed, relationships established and potential conflicts reared their heads. Nobody could slope off and kip; each actor sat around the stage and had to try their best to pay attention in scenes that didn’t involve them, just to keep on top of the story unfolding. A fifteen minute break between episodes was the only respite.
As I left for the day at around 7pm, a new show called Pimp My Ranch had the potential to be a ratings winner, Sophie Grabol was desperate to get something called Womanimal made, and weatherman Fred Kettlefish found out his invisible baby wasn’t his, following a DNA test on the Jenna Cydal show. The wonderful thing was, this was all about as sane as it was going to get.
I returned to the Improvathon at 9am on Sunday morning. The Kazimier was serving toast and tea, which was odd enough; yet testament to how people had begun to lose all sense of time as the show entered its 16th hour, people were still drinking beer and wine too. I sat down on a row where someone was laid down asleep. Krom, still in his Viking helmet and leopard print cape, waved to me energetically and said he was feeling awesome.
Some performers were in a bit of a tizzy, some were notably subdued, others you really wouldn’t have imagined had been giving their all to stay funny through the night. Dana Andersen had come from behind the narrator’s desk to do a stint on stage himself, and ended up as a character that was half John Wayne, half Mick Jagger.
It was at this point I think I kind of began to get the point. After a particularly witty song – wherein caretaker Derik Morecambe (yes) and a flamingo puppet called Reggie (yes) coveted each other’s jobs – that went unrecorded, such sterling effort for posterity and not even much of a crowd (around ten people had stayed overnight), the performance was all about the moment, and the spark of creativity that can be here and gone in a flash. It was joyous stuff.
It could be incredibly moving, too. With the future of the station in peril and 30 hours in, an emotional romantic scene between Isabel End and colleague Hugh Bris was genuinely touching. Later, a song from East End tough nut Babs Le Gash was so maddeningly clever after 32 hours without sleep as to be completely jaw-dropping.
Somehow, it all came together at the end. Of course, that doesn’t mean it made sense. Lovers were reunited, careers were reborn and the station was saved. Ending with a song, naturally, it was absolutely impossible not to be moved.
Like the end of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, when all the characters Jennifer Connelly met along the way come back for a big party, I spent Monday a little bereft it was all over. All in all, an hilarious, absorbing, genuinely unforgettable experience.
Images by Lee Isserow