Undercover: spontaneous detective work with improv queen Rebecca Northan

Rebecca Northan in Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Emily Cooper.

By Liz Nicholls 12thnight.ca

“Everyone has the capacity to improvise,” declares Rebecca Northan decisively, looking for inspiration on a lunch menu last week. “We all improvise all the time!”

Not everyone, I think to myself, wincing visibly at a couple of incidents of mute stage paralysis that arise, unwelcome, from my own personal memory archive. Northan is undeterred. “I don’t know what the cashier at the grocery store is going to say,” she beams. “And we don’t know how our lives will unfold. So every day is an improvisation for everybody!”

Northan, who possesses the kind of laugh that would make any reasonable person want to buy her a martini and hear more, has the theatre company to prove it. Spontaneous Theatre recruits and casts an audience member in a lead role, impromptu, on the very night of the performance. Its latest,  Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation), an adventure in “improvisational crime” and the solving thereof —  opening at the Citadel Club this week — has its very genesis in impulse. 

Northan, Toronto-based, happens to be working in Calgary, her home town. She happens to be in a cafe line. Behind her happens to be Craig Hall, artistic director of Vertigo Theatre, devoted to the mystery repertoire.

And she turns, “spur of the moment improv!,” and says “hey, what would you think of a show where an audience member goes undercover as a rookie detective to solve a murder?”

Hall, who seems to follow the improv dictum about saying yes, says “Great! Let’s do it!” His only proviso is a producing partner to share the costs. That would be Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, where Undercover premiered in September, and in the process took improv over the drawbridge and into the country’s stronghold of  “new Canadian plays.”  

The last time we saw Northan in this town, it was 2014 and she was dressed to kill — red lipstick, long red sequinned gown, draped in diamonds — singing the title song of Make Mine Love into a vintage microphone at the Citadel.   

Before that, though, Edmonton audiences had already fallen in love with Northan, in another (shorter) red dress, as Mimi, a sexy, endearing (and enterprising) red-nosed clown who gets stood up in a Paris cafe, and immediately finds herself another guy in the audience to spend the evening with. That hit Spontaneous Theatre show Blind Date, which actually is one, with all the risks that implies, has travelled the country, the U.S. and abroad, with sold-out runs Off-Broadway and London’s West End.

These days, 700 blind dates later, “we have four Mimi’s, including a lesbian Mimi and a queer Mathieu…” says Northan. And meanwhile she has other Spontaneous Theatre creations to her credit, including Legend Has It, a fantasy adventure that premiered at Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Project, in which the hero is a member of the audience.

Undercover is the biggest Spontaneous creation yet: six improvisers plus the newly recruited rookie detective thrown into a criminal investigation of a murder and surrounded by suspects and clues. “There’s no ‘script’ but there’s a structure,” says Northan, whose Undercover co-creator is cast-mate (and ex-husband) Bruce Horak. They’re concocting (with Christian Goutsis) a Zorro extravaganza for the upcoming Alberta Theatre Projects season. 

“We wanted Undercover to be a really good game…. Yes, there is only one right answer. And it’s not a given, a pushover; only 30 per cent of people solve it,” grins Northan. There’s a certain authenticity built into that stat since, as per consultations with a real-life homicide detective, the police solve rate is about the same. This pleases Northan mightily.

Rebecca Northan in Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation). Photo by Emily Cooper.

The complications of large-cast improv escalate exponentially. That’s the fun of it, says Northan. Four of the cast, including Northan, met as teenagers at Loose Moose Theatre, Calgary’s improv headquarters. From the world of Theatresports tournaments, Northan has known Mark Meer, who’s joined Undercover for the Edmonton run, just as long. Toronto-based actor/playwright Damien Atkins (The Gay Heritage Project), who’s been studying improv with Northan, returns to Edmonton to make his improv debut in the show.

“Good acting” is part of the deal, as Northan explains. “I’m always looking for a spontaneous balance between improvisation and great theatre: grounded characters, telling a good story.  And I always want performers to bring their own truth to the stage; I want them to be emotionally affected by what’s going on around them. It’s not always about being funny.”

“And there’s the added layer: our number one priority is taking care of the audience member, making sure they have a nice time….”

And that seems to prevail. In theory, for a non-actor non-performer who isn’t a psycho exhibitionist, the idea of getting up onstage and playing a leading role for an entire show might be downright terrifying. But Mimi’s blind dates seem to have a lovely time drinking wine with her, and being really listened to, by someone who’s empathetic and genuinely interested. (I’ve had a surprising number of email testimonials to that effect).

Northan agrees that the presence of an audience changes a ‘civilian’ perception of what is possible. She and her cast, who case the crowd in the lobby first, are experienced at sussing out the best choice, scanning body language and animation, trying to assess “how someone’s fear might change them.” They consult each other before making the fateful choice. They’re at pains never to pick an actor or a theatre pro; occasionally one slips through, and it invariably affects the dynamic in a negative way. “I like trying to figure out who people are,” says Northan. 

“People come offstage, and often say ‘I didn’t think I could do it. But I did!’,” Northan reports happily. “You arrive onstage nervous” (which synchs with the concept; hey, it’s  your first day on the job as a detective). And when you calm down and gain confidence, you start to look like a really good actor…. We’re human beings with a nervous system, so we’re programmed to adapt. It’s self-regulated.” 

“Some talk more, some are very good with physical action, some are more focussed,” says Northan of the newly born stars. “Whatever they do is right!” No matter what happens (or doesn’t), the cast always makes it work. “We’ve done 70 performances so far and no two are the same….”

Everybody knows the genre. It cuts through ever demographic, nine to 90,” says Northan, who made her showbiz debut in high school working for a murder mystery company alongside Horak.  The youngest rookie detective so far has been 15, the oldest 80, “and everything in between,” says Northan, remembering a 17-year-old the cast dubbed Nancy Drew for her acuity. “”We keep the clues coming. But from the moment she stepped onto the stage, she remembered things, noticed things….”

Northan the insurrectionist is plotting further incursions of spontaneity into theatre. This time, in a venture shared between the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. and the mighty Stratford Festival (premiering this fall), it’s the sacred canon itself. In An Undiscovered Shakespeare, Northan and co elicit a real-life love story from an audience member. And on the spot from that story, impossibly, they create the Shakespeare play Will never quite got around to writing. The next time we see Northan she may well be chatting in iambic pentameter.

Meanwhile, in a multi-room mansion “on a wealthy estate just outside Edmonton,” someone’s going to get killed. And someone up there onstage in the Citadel Club is guilty. 

Will the right person get arrested? You’ll have to be there on the night to find out. 


Undercover (a Spontaneous Theatre creation)

Theatre: Spontaneous Theatre

Created by: Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak

Directed by: Rebecca Northan

Starring: Rebecca Northan, Bruce Horak, Mark Meer, Damien Atkins, Christy Bruce, Terra Hazelton

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through April 29

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com   


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