Edited by Natasha Dawsen
Theatre was – more or less – invisible – for more than 18 months. The art of improv was slowly fading prior to the pandemic with several companies leaving NYC or leaving completely. One stayed strong and became one of the leaders of that industry. The Improvisational Repertory Theatre Ensemble (IRTE) is an award-winning collective of comedy actors and writers who develop, produce and perform a season of original themed improvisational shows, following the basic model of traditional repertory theatre. What made them distinctive is that they are a theatre company wrapped in an improv troupe – or visa versa. They create – before your eyes – full plays. Incorporating simple costumes, dollar store props, and broad (irreverent) characters, IRTE manages to take audience suggestions and their own clever memories (usually of pop-culture) and create a new play – every night.
The Marvelous Mrs. McCluskey (yes, a take-off f the Amazon hit show)
FRIDAYS & SATURDAYS: October 22, 23, 29 & 30 ; November 5, 6, 12 & 13, 2021
8:00pm – 9:30pm
Tickets $20 Online / $25 Cash Only at the Door
The Producers Club
358 West 44th Street, NYC
This is part II of a four-part series, interviewing the power-players of the company and what it feels like to return to being “live from New York.”
Robert Baumgardner is one of the founders and one of the lead-directors and writers of the company.
It’s bad enough that theater couldn’t happen, what do you do when audience feedback is more than essential for your show? What did you do during the pandemic?
I read a lot, and watched a lot of TV. I also performed in several play readings through Zoom. Those helped me keep in contact with fellow artists, and keep me in touch with my craft, even though Zoom performance is a different beast from the stage. Sure, there is an audience, but they all have to keep their microphones and cameras off to not overload the bandwidth. So, even though they are live performances, you don’t get that immediate satisfaction of audience laughter or shock or what have you.
Do you plan on working the pandemic into your future productions?
It may inform some of our work. I had a thought about the latest “improviplay” I’m directing, “The Marvelous Mrs McCluskey”. It is about a mother who has spent her life taking care of her family, essentially working at home, who finally decides to see what else is out there for her to do. Somewhere in there, I think there is a parallel to us as a nation being cooped up during this whole pandemic, and finally taking our first steps in reopening, and getting out there. There is a lot of emotion to be explored there.
Touchy subject… We are immersed in cancel culture. Do you need to consider that when creating plots and characters?
I don’t think about “cancel culture” per se. It really embodies this amorphous cloud of nay-sayers. Who are we talking about anyway? Which culture is doing the cancelling? People with an opinion about art and performance? People with political opinions? The woke? There are always critics. There always have been people muttering, “you’re not doing it right.” You can’t let it stop you though. That said, all of us have a duty to learn about and from each other. Whether it’s their culture, gender, sexuality, history, what-have-you. Sometimes we make missteps. Some are called out, and some are not. But, as long as we make an effort to learn and include as we move along in life, it’s the best start all of us can make.
You presented video versions of your stage work during the pandemic. Were they well-received and how did it translate?
“Diner on the Edge” was well received. We try to record shows just for our archives. It was the first time we put out a whole show for folks to stream. Since “Diner on the Edge” only had an opening weekend before the shutdown, we posted it free of charge. We got a lot of positive feedback, even though it was just a one camera setup, filmed from an iPhone. The humor still came across, and our videographer, Curt Dixon, was able to grab the entire width of the stage, so all our stagecraft of using sheets and props to create effects was not missed. Other than that and some short clips that people can view on our YouTube channel, IRTEinfo, we did not dabble too much in this new realm of “pandemic panavision.”
As you both are actors, directors, and writers, how has the changes in the world changed your own work?
That has yet to be seen. It has had an effect on everyone, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes there are moments when I’m approaching new material and I feel I’ve been bedridden for months, and my muscles have atrophied. Time to start getting back into shape. I’m sure it will inform all our work. I’m already thinking how it relates to “The Marvelous Mrs McCluskey.”
Is there a plan for the future or, dare I say it, will you improvise?
We’re returning live in October; we’re expanding our shows from a one hour format to a ninety minute format. We’re offering inexpensive workshops monthly for those inclined. We have started our annual fundraising campaign to make this and future seasons possible. I hope people can check our Fractured Atlas campaign page to donate: https://fundraising.fracturedatlas.org/irte/campaigns/4421
We’re planning and hoping to bring our brand of improv to as many as possible, and to bring some laughter back to this world.
Look for a two part interview with Nannette Deasy – IRTE’s artistic director – mid-week, in DramaQueensReviews and ShowTones.