THEATRE: Art imitates surreality in Die-Nasty Soap-a-Thon

Strange things can happen to actors who go the distance at the annual Die-Nasty Soap-a-Thon – this year’s edition beginning Friday at 7 p.m. at the Varscona Theatre and running continuously through Sunday at 9 p.m.

Disorientation, delirium, borderline psychosis, galloping coma, terminal giddiness, you name the symptom of sleep deprivation, you might just see it at this marathon comedic brainwashing session, a funhouse Manchurian Candidate-style scene lasting 50 straight hours. It’s basically an entire season, a “boxed set” of the popular improvised soap opera stuffed into one weekend.

“It’s surreal,” says veteran Die-Nasty actress Davina Stewart. “The theatre takes on different shapes. When I think back to different Soap-a-Thons, it’s like we did it in different theatres, even though we’ve always done it all in the Varscona, which I know really well.”

Weird, no? Such “magical vision moments” are what many of her fellow Die-Nastiers go for. “That’s what’s really enlightening and freeing about improv,” Stewart goes on. “You’re not worrying about it. You just have to get up and do it again, do it again. You’re not planning jokes. Your character is just responding, so it becomes really honest – and really hilarious.”

Mark Meer, Matt Alden and Belinda Cornish are among the other Die-Nasty regulars attempting the entire thing this year, along with some special guests from Liverpool, Trev Fleming and Angie Waller from the Impropriety company. They’re here as part of their honeymoon. Cathleen Rootsaert and Dana Andersen will be the tag-team directors. Improvised music will be provided Paul Morgan Donald and Jan Randall, among others.

Keep in mind that while there is a theme – a summer RV experience at Camp Tee Hee Hee on Lake Boobahootchee – the characters and plot have yet to be determined. They make it up as they go along, performing in two hour blocks that each include a 15 minute break. Stewart says she’ll probably know exactly who she’s playing at about five minutes before curtain.

There has never been a moment in this event’s 19 year history where there was absolutely no one in the audience, not even in the wee hours of Day Two. They get shift workers, Whyte Avenue party animals, insomniacs, bewildered passers-by and of course quite a number of regulars, many of which buy the $50 pass for the whole shebang. The come to see the developing story, the characters, the triumphs, and the “mistakes,” which are not really mistakes because everything that happens in an improv show makes a ripple, a “butterfly effect,” if you will, that involves the entire cast and story. Sometimes a bombed joke becomes the most important thing in the story – 49 hours later. Again: You just never know.

Past Soap-a-Thons that have transported its participants to another world inside their own brains included a virtual trip to a wedding in West Edmonton Mall, a parody of the Toronto International Film Festival complete with improvised film “clips,” and – at a similar event in London, England – a Sherlock Holmes mystery featuring the actor who actually played Watson in Young Sherlock Holmes.

There are usually a number of special guests who dip in and out. Colin Maclean once joined the cast for its High School Reunion theme, and they all played Reach for the Top (a popular area quiz show he hosted for 20 years). What made it extra weird was the fact that several of the actors had actually appeared on Reach for the Top back in high school – a sterling example of art imitating surreality.

Despite the free-for-all nature of the Soap-a-Thon, not just anyone off the street can come up and play. It just wouldn’t be fair, Stewart says.

“You are joining people who are sleep deprived,” she says. “It’s like showing up at a party where everybody’s dropped acid and you might be drunk, but you’re all trying to have the same good time.”

Yes, you see the problem. These people are canny veterans – and they can get the LSD experience entirely without drugs.

Single entry tickets are $15 (you can stay for the whole thing, but if you leave you have to pay again), or $50 for a come-and-go pass, available at the door of the Varscona Theatre (10329 83 Avenue), cash only.