What is it? Glennis McMurray and Eliza Skinner perform original showtunes based on one audience suggestion. Previous hits include "Being a Ballerina is Fucking Hard" and "Everyone I Work with Has Mustaches." This Piccolo visit is a victory lap of sorts for the ladies after crowd-pleasing, sold-out performances at the Charleston Comedy Festival.
Why see it? The jokes you hear at the show will be easier to retell to friends later, because they're in song. That's a fact.
Who should go? Improv fans. Musical lovers hoping to cleanse their palate after Sweeney Todd and Andrew Lloyd Webber night on American Idol.
PICCOLO SPOLETO • $15 • 1 hour • May 29 at 7:30 p.m., May 30 at 5 p.m., May 31 at 7 p.m. • Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St. • (888) 374-2656
Glennis McMurray and Eliza Skinner eat pandas.
Well, they don't actually eat pandas. Pandas are endangered, so they would be pretty hard to come by. Nevermind that it would also be totally illegal.
Really, the women first stumbled upon the name "I Eat Pandas" after getting together for a competition. They wound up keeping it.
"Not everybody can say they can do that," says Skinner. "If we can eat pandas, we can make a musical too."
I Eat Pandas is similar to traditional improv acts: the audience makes a one-word suggestion and McMurray and Skinner perform around that idea. But unlike other comedy acts at this year's Piccolo Fringe, the women are going to be doing more than acting.
They'll be singing.
I Eat Pandas improvise 25 minute, 15 minute, and five minute musicals motivated by that one-word suggestion during their show.
"If we get 'popcorn,' it won't be three musicals about popcorn," McMurray said. "It will be three musicals inspired by that word."
I Eat Pandas began when they joined their original piano player as a musical team and performed in a three-on-three competition at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. The group got second place and a standing ovation.
"We were like, 'Whoa, well maybe we've got something here,'" McMurray said.
Years later, the improv duo — along with piano player Frank Spitznagel — were named Best Improv Group at the 2008 ECNY Awards.
McMurray and Skinner think of their act as an actual story and musical, so they trust their instincts on where to add songs and where scenes should end.
"It's all about listening and feeling and living in the moment instead of planning anything out," McMurray says.
Musicals are also more fun and natural for the women, who both have years of experience in the genre. Surprisingly, Skinner, who has been in musicals since she was six, believes that the format of their show is easier, not harder, than straightforward improv.
"We can do [straightforward improv]," Skinner said. "It's just not as fun."
McMurray adds that because they have been doing it for such a long time, they no longer think about the mechanics of the show.
"Eliza and I really trust each other," she says. "We know that whatever comes out of our mouths and whatever we put out there, the other person is going to support and our piano player is going to support."
To date, Skinner says that nothing has gone "tragically wrong," even if they've had shows they're not completely happy with.
A lot of improv goes for the joke, but McMurray says they want the audience to care about the characters and story.
"I think by being honest and living in the moment, I feel that the audience is even more invested in it, and when something happens, they're right along with us," she says.
The audience has more fun with I Eat Pandas' style too, according to Skinner. The stories are different and more emotional, and though their performances are dark, they are ultimately hopeful. Unlike other improv acts, Skinner says that their audience leaves happier and even inspired, she's been told.
McMurray hopes that by the end of the musical, the audience has gone on a journey with the group.
But don't worry. No pandas will be harmed during the making of their musicals. —Susan Cohen