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.
In this case, “travel” translated to a story about San Francisco as a city of transplants who have migrated here from all over the country (and the world, but that part doesn’t play into this particular narrative). Opening with a simple, slightly cloying ensemble number (“Here I am, here I am, I have come from afar”), it settled into a meandering story about six chronically single housemates. Two of them (Jessia Hoffman and musical director Molly Robertson) were sisters who came from New Jersey to open a coffee shop. Hoffman’s tentative Lena was sweet on Roy, the only San Francisco native in the bunch, but was too tongue-tied to ask him out, and Roy (an anxious Larry Williams) professed to have no interest in dating anyone, preferring a simple single life with no complications. He also had a tendency to drone on and on about different varieties of organic fruits and vegetables.
Other characters seemed perpetually in search of their place in the story. Vanessa Speed as supportive pal Diane gradually evolved from offering romantic advice to actually predicting the future, lamenting that she “gets to read the end of everybody else’s book” and yearns for a tale of her own. Scott Keck was primarily an impish provocateur as homebrew-making Tony, goading Roy into action despite being equally dateless himself. Robeson was particularly amusing as Stan, a relative newcomer who wears Google Glass all the time and gets so giddily wired on espresso that it’s like he’s never had coffee before.
Improv is hit or miss by nature. Sometimes you can hardly believe the performers are winging it, and sometimes the effort to keep things moving is all too obvious. Saturday’s show never quite found its shape, but even so it delivered a few very funny moments, especially things that the overcaffeinated Stan blurted out. A few of the songs were great, such as Tony’s raucous hollering blues prodding Roy into action and Lena’s lament about her own awkwardness. Others were more dodgy, with some less-than-harmonious harmonies.
But the great thing is, the next show will be completely different: plot, characters, songs, cast — all of it. Only the hissing fog machine remains constant.
Foglandia runs through August 23, 2014 at Un-Scripted Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit un-scripted.com.
All photos by Clay Robeson.