Chicago Tribune, January 3, 2003
The suggestion comes from FuzzyCo technical manager Greg Inda.
"A duel!" he shouts.
And off they go. In a rehearsal for the troupe's latest show "The Neutrino Project"--a theater/video improv experiment opening Saturday at WNEP Theater--the 20-plus cast and crew runs out of its practice space, splits into teams of actors and cameramen and disperses along Lincoln Avenue.
Aided by massive logistical charts detailing where each team needs to be at any given time, FuzzyCo actresses Jen Ellison and Andrea Swanson bolt next door to Glazed Expressions, a paint-it-yourself pottery shop and now the site for their first scene. Riffing off of the original idea--a duel--the two women fall into character as two antagonistic sisters fighting over what to buy their mom for the holidays. As they find their way through the scene, cameraman Cesar Jaime hovers with his hand-held digital video camera, capturing the four-minute improv on tape.
Developed by director/lead videographer Fuzzy Gerdes and producer/improviser Shaun Himmerick, "The Neutrino Project" is inspired by Neutrino, an improv troupe based in Manhattan. This past summer, Gerdes, Himmerick and Jaime saw them perform "Neutrino: The Video Project"--an improvised film shot on location over 22 minutes--during a Del Close Improv Marathon in New York. Cameraman Jaime was "blown away by the mystery of the process" and FuzzyCo gained permission from Neutrino to produce a version of the show, "The Neutrino Project," in Chicago. After two successful previews in the fall, the troupe decided to move forward with a longer 45-minute production.
The format is as follows: An audience gathers at WNEP Theater. As often happens in improv, the audience is invited to shout out one-word suggestions. But with "Neutrino," instead of immediately improvising off of the suggestion on stage, members of FuzzyCo run out of the theater creating spontaneous on-location short films.
"The show is almost live . . . two minutes ago," says Gerdes.
Players are pre-assigned teams and do scout out neighborhood locations, but the content is very much left to chance. Teams act out and tape two to three scenes each--the show consists of 15 scenes in total--with the first scene recorded, handed off to "lead runner" Lance Hoffman, delivered to tech manager Inda and up on the WNEP Theater screen in less than five minutes. The audience watches what just happened a few blocks away with only a couple of minutes delay, and from there, tape after tape is delivered and an entire show unfolds onscreen.
"It's like that scene in `Broadcast News,'" says ensemble member Phillip Mottaz, "when Joan Cusack runs in and slides the tape under the door--happening 15 times."
While the audience watches the movie, a whole production is happening around them as the out-of-breath runner arrives with more tapes and the tech folks get the film rolling. Though it appears chaotic, the whole production is run on a very tight schedule. The only downtime the audience experiences is from start to the first tape. After that, FuzzyCo is running like clockwork and scenes flash on screen one after the other.
For improviser Elizabeth McNaughton, the one-word suggestion serves as the through-line, while each team lends what she describes as "musical variety" to each segment.
"The films we've created so far tend to be lighthearted," says Gerdes. "But we do have moments of raw honesty."
Cast member Beth Melewski notes that, on stage, improvisers possess a heightened sense of themselves--especially when they are spurred on by audience reactions. But, on film, they have to "keep it real," focus on their character and rely on gut instincts that move a scene logically forward. Quips fellow improviser Ellison, "You can't suddenly be in Tunisia."
And it couldn't be more real than getting kicked out of the Dunkin' Donuts on Clark and Belmont during filming or flipping char-dogs at a Vienna Beef stand or dragging an unsuspecting cab driver into an improvised argument between a male and female cast member--all of which occurred in earlier preview productions.
In rehearsal as in the real show, everyone catches their breath and gathers at a central location--Tavern 33 when we tagged along--for the grand finale. As they tape scene 15, the audience is behind a few, but by the time the last tape is delivered and the finale scene is on screen, FuzzyCo members are back at WNEP, wiping their collective brow.
"`The Neutrino Project' combines the immediacy of theater with the intimacy of film," says Gerdes. "It's barely controlled chaos always on the verge of collapse."
"The Neutrino Project"
When: 10:30 p.m. Saturdays through Feb. 1
Where: WNEP Theater, 3209 N. Halsted St.
Price: $10; 773-296-1100