A Serious Business – Sydney Fringe (Theatre Review)

A Serious Business 

Upper Crass Theatre Company, Sydney Fringe

At the time of publishing this review, this performance has ended. You can find out more about future improv or other shows here. 

“For the existentialists, the human being is ‘more’ than what it is: not only does the human being know that it is but, on the basis of this fundamental knowledge, this being can choose how it will ‘use’ its own being, and thus how it will relate to the world.” Deranty, Jean-Philippe, “Existentialist Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition)

There are many reasons to go along and enjoy a night of improv theatre, but if you want to go a little deeper it is worth remembering what the Australian teacher Al Wunder reminds us; the performer who is working with improvisation as a pure theatre form, is potentially both the site of the performance as well as the performance itself, its narrative and aesthetic contents. Surely this is conceptualised in the works of Upper Crass Theatre Company, who run their actors through the rigor and difficulty of improv on the bare stage with an audience in the round. What becomes apparent is the problem of a distinction between the performance and the actors genuine persona. Indeed, James Hartley plays with this notion by introducing the actors according to a stage (or improv) persona that acts as the ‘true’ self. The audience is discombobulated through watching the stage presence perform a role in immediacy within the physicality of the human subject. Each performance, is in fact two performances and an actor (3 beings) who exists under and over that which we see. While this means we witness performance, each small act is surprisingly rich, including all the memories and ghosts of the actor, who wears more than one mask to hide from us who sit all around.[1]

When defining the performing self from the perspective of existentialist philosophy, two thoughts come to mind. There is the actor who becomes the performance, losing herself in the aesthetic essence of the role; either the performers self is non-existent in favour of what has often been called ‘active absences’ in interplay or she is an ‘unlimited self’ in a kind of enormity. When watching the six performers of A Serious Business (that is a business that is anything but serious) one gets a strong sense that the nature and purpose of the performing self is given meaning by the performers own perspective on herself in performance. Essentially each improv actor chooses and it is the choice that reveals the human creature under the two actors competing inside the role. Tommy Green performs as Tommy Green the improv actor any role that he is given by James Hartley, but what he cannot avoid is hearing the words of James Hartley not as they are spoken by the man James Hartley but as Tommy Green the man hears anything.

In this way, improv invites its own problems and solves them at the same time. We can’t help but see the human playing the actor playing the role. Part of the serious pleasure of A Serious Business is the emphasis each performer places on their role as actor acting. Not only are performances and scenarios very funny, but the role between the actor and the performance is engaging and intimate also. Configuring an audience in the round, so that we are turned in on each other, ads a dimension of reflection to the already thrilling dance of multiplicity. As an audience member, I watched the audience having fun as an audience, resisting and including the discomforts and confrontations of being a small room watching theatre, even as the watchers watched me. The absurdity of our existential choice bounces off each of us and unites us as we are compelled to watch and not look away.

This small troop of Atlas Adams, Brenton Amies, Alice Furze, Tommy Green, and James Shepherd are kept in line by producer and resident host of Upper Crass Players, James Hartley. James is a fit host, lucid and clear, who gives off a vibe of propinquity even as he perplexes. We are drawn the heart of the organizational action such that the performance itself almost occurs as after the event.

Upper Crass Players is a fun and clever troop, who know how to have a lot of fun yet keep a tight professional grip on the ruffle that makes improv so light while engaging. I found the time watching far too short, and very funny. This is a charming and warm show that gives off a sense of connection, despite the schizophrenic energies of Improv. A lovely light and fun hour of theatre.

[1] Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts 2011, Edited by Daniel Meyer-Drinkgafe. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Chapter 21 – The Ritual(s) of Theatre Improvisation: Kudiyattam Theatre, Pre-Performance rituals and Western Theatre Improvisation as a psychophysical Practice. James McNicholas