By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Even by the globe-trotting, frontier-busting standards of the international improv comedy world, Speechless is an unlikely creation.
Two acrobatic circus-trained improvisers from Bogotá, Colombia and a female DJ from Winnipeg? Come on, the odds-against factor doesn’t even compute. And it’s especially appealing that Improvaganza, the Rapid Fire Theatre improv/sketch comedy festival where Speechless arrives June 20, is a homecoming: Improvaganza, after all, is where Speechless was born in 2013.
“I think of it as destiny!” declares Sarah Michaelson, aka Mama Cutsworth, a professional DJ who founded an academy for female DJs more than a dozen years ago. She laughs, but she’s not kidding, not really.
It’s not that improv is a huge departure for Michaelson, who’s friendly and far-from-speechless on the phone from the ‘Peg. The groundbreaking DJ, who’s “known for mixing genres and finding correlations,” as she says, loves a broad range of musical styles and eras, cutting-edge contemporary to vintage. And she’s improvised sound tracks for such Winnipeg improv stars as The Crumbs.
In 2012, Michaelson got invited to a German improv festival. And that’s where she caught sight of two South American improvisers with an unusual skill set. “Daniel (Orrantia) and Felipe (Ortiz) intrigued me!” she says, “not just because they had circus and clown background and training, but because the South American style is very different….”
As Michaelson explains,the disciples of North American improv gurus Keith Johnstone and Del Close have a certain attachment to ‘realism’ — they wear street clothes onto the stage, there’s a lot of talking.” The South American style, by contrast is “very physical, extremely theatrical, with a taste for the surreal.”
“In Brazil, for example, you see improv shows with extravagant lighting and costumes. In Colombia the literary genre of magic realism is a huge influence….”
After that sighting of Ortiz and Orrantia, by the kind of coincidence Michaelson calls “happy accident” she found herself at Improvaganza, improvising music for Theatresports matches. And she got asked “could you do music for two Colombian guys?” Like all improvisers, Michaelson’s impulse was to say yes!.
“The Theatresports challenge was to do a scene about language…. We thought we’d do something without it. We did a little scene with no talking and it felt really special!”
It was, as she recalls, a scene about a small village in a jungle where the people had never seen seen a piano before. “Very beautiful, very poetic,” says Michaelson of the story. And it was told physically, with a musical soundscape instead of words.
After that the three asked themselves “would it be crazy, too far-fetched, to do a long-form silent show?” Speechless was born in those deliberations.
Michaelson thinks Speechless has a very different feel from the raucous, crackling energy of most improv and its solicitation of cues from the audience. “We connect with the audience, get them to tell us a story, then tell a personal story of our own…. We’re looking for more heart, more beauty, more vulnerability in the story.”
The trio often includes montages, landscapes, hallucinatory scenes. “We might use bits and piece of the audience member’s story, a phrase that sticks with us, or an image…. Sometimes there are fantastical dream sequences or memory flashbacks. We try to be extremely cinematic, all of us using our skills to create something special. Exciting, and scary!” In Amsterdam this past January, Michaelson reports, “a lot of the audience ended up crying.”
Wordlessness is a plus, she thinks. “Although the story is clear, there’s still room for interpretation. The audience can inject their own lives into our storytelling. We use no names in the show — that way you can think about your own grandparents maybe or….”
“It’s deeply fulfilling, it feels meaningful,” she says of Speechless. “Daniel and Felipe are “very patient performers; they take a long time to build a story. That way, the audience starts falling into the rhythm and breathing with us….”
“This isn’t snappy improv! We’re not going for shock value…. We get a lot of inspiration from films, novels, music,” says Michaelson. “I wanted to get inside Daniel and Felipe’s heads, to find what was engrained in their hearts…. I started digging into the novels of (Colombian magic realist) Gabriel Garcia Márquez.”
“We’re apart for most of the year,” Michaelson says. Often when they meet it’s in a foreign city none of them calls home. They’ve played Mexico City; they’ve toured Europe and the Middle East. When the three land in Edmonton this week, one arrives from Finland, one from Bogotá, one from Winnipeg.
“I consider Daniel and Felipe very close friends, but it is a long-distance relationship,” Michaelson says. “ You know what they say, distance is like wind to a fire: it blows out the small flames but strengthens the big ones.”
Tickets for Speechless: rapidfiretheatre.com