By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
They’re onstage at the new Rapid Fire Theatre Exchange, looking at each other and the audience.
They were supposed to have written the new musical they’re supposed to be performing for 10 nights (it says so in their contract). And OMG they just never got around to it.
No sheet music. No script. No director.… A no-fail recipe for showbiz disaster, surely, with an exclamation mark for good measure. That’s Flop!, the musical that two of the country’s star improvisers, Ron Pederson and Ashley Botting, will create live and on the spot from audience suggestions every night at the Exchange. And after the tryout run with Edmonton’s improv-savvy audiences, New York producer Alan Kliffer plans to take Flop! Off-Broadway next fall or winter.
Life and showbiz are full of uncertainties. But an improvised musical for a cast of two leans into the unknown, and fears thereof, at a particularly precarious angle. What possesses Pederson and Botting, and Kliffer?
We set about finding out, on Google Meet. Kliffer is in NYC, where he relocated from Toronto six years ago. Botting is in her Toronto bedroom alongside a trampoline (“My pandemic fitness program. Is there dust on it? YES!”). Pederson is at Pearson, getting ready to fly to his boyhood home town, where Edmonton audiences recently saw him onstage in the musical First Date at the Mayfield. That’s where we’ll see him again come June, along with his Gordon’s Big Bald Head cohorts Jacob Banigan and Mark Meer, in Clusterflick in which they’ll improvise an entire movie.
As Pederson explains, he and Botting met in One Night Only, the Toronto improv hit Kliffer “invented” in 2016.“We were the two Canadians” in the cast of five who’d have played Birdland (the lower level of the storied New York jazz club) in 2019 — until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s improvised hip-hop Freestyle Love Supreme moved into the Booth Theatre, “Alan’s dream theatre,” 300 metres to the left. Then came the pandemic.
“Coming from Edmonton I know a lot of terrific musical improvisers,” says Pederson, with a nod to Grindstone’s The 11 O’Clock Number and Rapid Fire’s Off Book. “But I realize how hard it is to find people who can improvise a song, lyrics, dance moves, be rhythmic physically, do a dream ballet if they have to. More rare than I thought…. That’s how Flop! came about.”
“I’d call him ‘a tenacious visionary’,” says Botting of Kliffer, who says “I feel that the improvised musical really comes from Canada.” Pederson laughs, “I call Alan the Great Ziegfeld.” For his part Kliffer calls the Flop! duo “improv ninjas,” agile on their feet in a form, musical theatre, that rarely unfolds as a two-hander.
Botting, a Second City veteran whom his stage partner calls “one of the greatest improvising lyricists ever,” does a solo cabaret in which she improvises 10 songs. At first Pederson thought he might try that in Edmonton. He changed his mind after consulting with Botting. “It’s lonely,” she told him. “Not fun. I know I’m doing a really great tightrope walk. I know I’m working at the top of my intelligence and ability. I know I’m impressing people. But I don’t want to be up there alone…. I want to be looking at Ron Pederson, and seeing that little shit-disturber look in his eye, and I’m gonna say ‘don’t do it Ron’. And he’ll do it anyway….”
“What Ron and I have in common,” she thinks, “is that we play the theatricality of it, not the shtick-y game-y sense. And we both have a deep love of musicals, of the art form. It’s in our bones.… What Ron and I like is to be very precise and impressive with our craft. And very stupid with our content! That’s the balance we both thrive in!” Pederson and Kliffer smile.
“We have a richer attack because we’re both Jason Robert Brown nerds,” laughs Pederson. “We have a lexicon of things to reference and pay homage to.” He knows first-hand the extreme challenges of long-form improv, of “taking care of a story, and making audiences care about it, for an hour.” Gordon’s Big Bald Head regularly sell out houses for their annual Fringe foray, in which they improvise any one of the shows listed in the Fringe program. The National Theatre of the World, the Toronto improv troupe he co-founded in 2008 with Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus, premiered plays that famous playwrights like Ibsen or Tennessee Williams somehow forgot to write.
Though musical theatre-crazy, like Pederson, Botting’s entry point into showbiz was improv rather than musicals because “Second City was a thing I could do instantly and really well” when she decided to be a performer. “I didn’t go to theatre school…. And I didn’t see myself as a clear archetype in musicals when I was coming up. I wasn’t old enough to be what I essentially am, a funny sidekick character (with a voice to match). I wasn’t blonde enough to be an ingenue. Improv kept saying Yes to me. So that’s what I did.”
Both Botting and Pederson come at musical improv with a skill set that includes writing and directing. The former has been in Halifax this year writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes; she’s directed Second City mainstage shows recently. Pederson, who directed the Winnipeg premiere of his play The Player King at Shakespeare in the Ruins in Winnipeg, is currently working on a theatre commission.
“Musical improv seems to bring together all the things I have to offer,” says Pederson. It’s a thought echoed by Botting, who came to the 2019 Edmonton Fringe with Second City’s She The People. “Whenever I return to musical improv I bring all the skill sets I’ve acquired.”
They’re thinking of the Edmonton premiere of Flop! as “a way to figure out what it is,” as Pederson puts it, with a smile. “The failure aspect,” as the title blurts out, is a way to engage the audience’s assistance. The improvisers are in trouble, “when you have an hour and there are only two people….” And a musical raises the improv stakes exponentially; “it’s got failure in the recipe.”
“I boldly say it synthesizes all the the things I do, but it never fails to make me go ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ before I walk onstage,” says Pederson. He describes going to a doctor lately to get an Ativan prescription, for flying. “He’d seen me improvise and asked ‘why do you need these pills…. I’ve seen what you do’.”
The conceit of the show, as the pair describe, is that the audience has the fun of helping bail out the beleaguered improvisers onstage, (a duo plus the dexterous musical improviser Erik Mortimer at the keyboard).
“Our goal,” says Botting, “is to be self-referential. We can step outside the show and say ‘Hi, audience! How’s this going?’.” Says Pederson, “we’re letting the audience in on the negotiation that goes on, stepping outside the musical to talk about structure, or where the hell it’s going to go…. I hope to get them to sing along with us. It’s engaging them to sit forward because we could come at them at any moment with ‘OK, now what’”?
“I love playing with the audience. I love when you get a bit of an emotional something from the audience, why they care about something, what’s important to them.”
The storyline takes care of itself, they argue. “When you get the Who? and the Where?, the What? will show up,” says Pederson. “As long we’re not too Bourne Identity,” adds Botting.
In improv, the element of surprise is the terror and the joy, both addictive as Pederson and Botting describe. “Surprise is the engine of the whole thing,” says the former. “I am as surprised as the audience is; I’m just experiencing it differently,” says the latter.
“We’re all in the same sort of magic. It’s not like I’m doling out something I already know I’ll be doing. It’s allowing it to be whatever it is. And enjoying the journey.”
Created by: Ron Pederson, Ashley Botting, producer Alan Kliffer
Starring: Ron Pederson, Ashley Botting, musical director Erik Mortimer.
Where: Rapid Fire Exchange, 10437 83 Ave.
Running: May 18 to 28