(RERUN): Soap-a-Thon to inspire imaginations

Soap-a-Thon Die-Nasty GigCity EdmontonDuring an improv workshop held before last year’s Die-Nasty Soap-a-Thon, instructor Patti Stiles asked if there was anybody who had never improvised.

I was the only one who raised my hand.

Everyone else applauded! Way to make a newbie feel good, eh?

All “guests” of the annual Soap-a-Thon – running this year from 7 pm Friday to 9 pm Sunday at the Varscona Theatre and set in the fictional nowhere town of Flatt, Alberta – must attend a workshop. While a number of Edmonton’s top improvisers may be going the entire 50 hours – guys like Mark Meer – they need help. They need fresh characters to fall in love with or murder, or both; They need inspiration from someone who hasn’t been awake for 30 hours straight to help keep the story going. That’s the Holy Grail here: “Serving the story.” This year’s directors (Dana Andersen, Jeff Haslam, Cathleen Rootsaert and Rosie Wilkinson) can only control so much. Every little thing that gets made up on the spot – by anyone – is set in stone to become a permanent part of the narrative.

The pre-marathon workshops help prepare the participants for the ordeal to come. I show up to “pretend” to be a guest who knows how to pretend professionally. How hard could it be?

Stiles reminds her class, “Everything is an offer, everything is potential, everything is a possibility. Commit to everything. It makes things way more fun.”

Dana Andersen, another of Die-Nasty’s founders, says, “Accidents are gifts more than mistakes. It’s like jazz. If you do it more than once it just becomes part of the scene.”

Stiles adds, “If you fuck up, enjoy the fucking up.”

Soap-a-Thon Die-Nasty GigCity Edmonton

Improvisers gather for a pre-Soap-a-Thon workshop in 2013

The first acting game is called “Columbian Headfuck” and I realize this is probably a PG-13 sort of show. We’re told to pair off, count to three and utter a random word at the same time, and then simultaneously free associate words we just heard in rapid succession. I cratered after “balloon” and “banana.”

The next exercise is “Emotional Timebomb,” where one partner registers emotion while the other tries to justify it. I’m paired this time with real actor Tom Edwards, another Die-Nasty veteran, who was said to be grumpy because he locked his keys in his car and doesn’t seem too thrilled about workshopping the stuff he already knows with a newbie. After awkward stammering, I get as far as miming a tinfoil hat for him to wear when I bail out.

That’s enough. These enthusiastic actors are going for it with such intensity, creating a din of complete nonsense, laughing, crying, screaming, moaning, using their whole bodies. It’s as if they’re playing dodgeball, which in a way, they are. It is, for the record, harder than it looks.

These guys take their silliness very seriously. Some people still can’t believe it’s an entire world created out of thin air, a complete longform story with the same goals as any great theatre: “It’s about people being changed and affected,” Stile says, though it’s Soap-a-thon participants themselves who seem the most changed and affected.

There is talk of a “love circle” before the show begins. Asked why they put themselves through such an ordeal every year, Andersen replies, “It’s a pilgrimage.” Others call it a “vision quest” and speak of strange things that occur in the “wonky hours,” events that stick with the performers for years. Andersen and Stiles played a married couple a couple of years ago, and it still seems strangely real to them. To demonstrate, she screams at him, “You bastard! You broke my heart for 35 hours!”

She adds, in all seriousness, “The greatest gift of an improviser is being able to inspire their partner’s imagination.”

Passes for the Die-Nasty Soap-a-Thon are $52.50, on sale now.

(A version of this story was originally published in September, 2013)