Despite its deserved reputation for risky high-wire wildness, modern improv remains a theater genre founded on rules, games, and forms. And there's probably no form that produces a more distinct style of performance than The Movie, one of several innovations bequeathed to improv by pioneer Del Close.
As imagined by Close, six to eight performers take a suggestion from the audience and quickly begin shouting out stage directions that set the scene for an original movie. If the development of film as a distinct art form was about extracting the elements of storytelling from the traditions of live theater, then this is live theater's lusty revenge, with performers portraying not only movie characters, but the technical conventions of movie-making.
That made it an obvious crush-object for Anthony Atamanuik, a performer with a film degree from Emerson College who rose from Upright Citizens Brigade student to troupe member in 2002.
"I remember saying 'This is perfect. This is everything I love,'" Atamanuik recalls. "It's sort of like writing a screenplay on stage, so we're getting to say all the narrative stuff. You're describing the scene for the audience and ... moving everyone on stage so that they can satisfy the cinematic effect that we're trying to portray."
Atamanuik and his friend Neil Casey (both members of the ongoing UCB troupe Death by Roo Roo) got their first extended experience with the traditional large-cast Movie form with UCBT's Instant Cinema group in 2004. The two began toying with the idea of tweaking it into something that could be performed by a smaller cast. They've been performing Two-Man Movie as what Casey calls "our vanity project" at New York's UCB East theater for the past couple of years.
Going with the smallest possible cast is a trade off, Atamanuik says. The more participants onstage, the more cinematic features you can portray, yet when it comes to creating stories and characters, the larger cast offers less risk-taking freedom.
"The larger the group, the more disciplined you have to be, because of that 'too-many-cooks-spoil-the-broth' thing," he says. "So we thought, let's do this big challenge that requires us to do all this heavy-lifting — in terms of setting the stage — but lets us take the show in more surprising directions."
The result is a show grounded in the fundamentals of screenwriting, but also steeped in the rules and conventions of specific film genres. It begins with a suggested song lyric provided by the audience, followed by rapid-fire scene descriptions and improvised action, as if two manic would-be screenwriters were pitching their new movie to a heavily sedated studio executive.
What emerges night-to-night is never a parody of a specific film, but often operates as a spoof of Hollywood's genre cliches. Reinterpreting the 1972 ensemble disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure wouldn't be funny, Atamanuik says, but taking the overwrought conventions of the specific niche genre of "disaster films about people stuck in vehicles" and playing with them on stage offers the duo plenty of options.
Ultimately, it's the chemistry between the two that determines how well any given performance turns out. Atamanuik describes his own style as "untethered," comparing it to "throwing a bunch of pasta at the wall." Casey, he says, "is very good at being someone who frames things, who calls out intellectual inconsistencies." But the trick is their ability to swap roles.
"I can play like Neil and Neil can play like me," Atamanuik says. "Almost every show we surprise each other, either by the choices we make or the direction we take the show.
"If you see us both moving rapidly through the scenes and excitedly describing the next scene we're going to, we're probably in a good place," he adds. "But I don't think we've ever had one that really hit the skids. Your tendency for self-preservation kicks in."