San Francisco has inspired its share of musicals over the years, from Flower Drum Song to Tales of the City to The Barbary Coast Revue. And now Un-Scripted Theater Company is creating a new musical about San Francisco every night (Thursdays through Saturdays, anyway). Celebrating its twelfth year, Un-Scripted specializes in full-length improvised plays and musicals based on themes and settings tossed out by the audience immediately before the show. The company’s new show, Foglandia, is a series of musicals about San Francisco made up on the spot by a rotating cast of actors and accompanists.
And that’s not even the only thing keeping these improvisers on their toes. Every Saturday at 10pm, after Foglandia, Un-Scripted presents its ongoing freeform show DASH, blending improv games (think Whose Line Is It Anyway) and scenes into a continuous hour-long show, incorporating audience suggestions throughout. The company’s Sunday Revival series brings back favorite Un-Scripted shows of the past on Sunday evenings, such as its speculative fiction exploration In a World... and its superhero romp Secret Identity Crisis.
The musicians have to improvise as much as the actors, collaboratively creating songs on the spot and feeling out when it’s time to burst into song. At the Foglandia showing I caught on Saturday, July 19, keyboardist David Norfleet kept up a steady score at all times, ready to segue into a singable melody at a moment’s notice. Whoever’s manning the tech booth, in this case Bryce Byerley, also has to play it by ear, taking cues for the lighting from what’s going on onstage.
Part of the fun of an improv show is seeing how cleverly the performers incorporate audience suggestions into the show. It’s also, for any skeptics in the house, the best indicator that, yes, they really are making it all up as they go, even the songs, no matter how polished the performance may appear to be.
Perhaps because having the audience holler out responses to the actors’ questions can be time-consuming, at this particular show patrons were encouraged to write down suggestions beforehand, and the actual audible brainstorming was kept to a minimum. We were asked to think of a favorite movie or book, distill what its basic theme was, and then call that out. When someone said “time travel,” director Clay Robeson simplified it to “travel” and went with that—though honestly, the original suggestion might have been more fun, because travel is so generic and doesn’t narrow things down much for such a destination city. Part of the experience is lost, too, when you don’t know what the suggestions were or how they were used.