Before your very eyes, a new ‘classic’ from the golden age of Hollywood every night

It's being reported that Sasha Baron Cohen is heading back to his roots for his next project: potentially a new Ali G film.
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There’s a show playing that improvises a Hollywood comedy every night – a few words on Talkies, which can see this very August.

There’s so much happening in Edinburgh right now. Very probably too much.

During August’s overlapping festivals of music, theatre, comedy and other… uh… fringe elements, you’ll find that just crossing The Royal Mile – let alone travelling along it – puts a person at extreme risk of high intensity flyer assault. In the worst case, you might even get accosted by a mime. Everybody wants your attention.

But among all of the culture, it can be surprisingly hard to find the things you will actually want to see. I’ve had plenty of post hoc FOMO from Edinburgh, coming home at the end of the trip just to hear about what I should have really seen instead.

Consider this a warning, then, precision targeted at the Film Stories audience. Running at Just The Tonic’s The Caves – helpfully described as being ‘just up the road’ – is Talkies, the improvised Hollywood comedy. Or rather, a whole new improvised Hollywood comedy every single night from 15 to 27 August. There’s even period-suitable, improvised music. As effortless as it might look, this is not the sort of thing that’s easy to pull off.

To find out how this show actually works and doesn’t just implode every night, I had a chat with Tom Wilkinson, founding member of the Ghostwriters team and the chap who dreamed up this whole idea in the first place.

Here’s what he had to tell me, starting with an explanation of why the press release for this improvised show specifically credits writers.

There’s one bit of the show that has been truly written and that’s the first ninety seconds.

There’s always a challenge with improvised shows, which is to tell the audience “This is improvised, here’s how we’re going to get that information, the random seed that will build our show. You’re in safe hands because we know what we’re doing… and welcome to the world of this show.” There is that little written bit and it’s there to give as economical an introduction to the show as possible.

Then there’s a figurative sense in which it’s written. It’s devised, and the six or so people who have had a go at making it are authors, in a way. What’s improvised is the rest of it, for better or worse. So far, better.

It's being reported that Sasha Baron Cohen is heading back to his roots for his next project: potentially a new Ali G film.

The show begins with a clip evocative of films of the period, and that leads you onto the stage. We imagine that it’s the night after the Academy Awards, and a load of writers stumble in, they’ve not won and they’re kvetching and back chatting, and they decide that next year, it’s in the bag. This is when they have a kind of pitch session where they’re coming up with ideas, and when they struggle, one of them walks off and – as if they’re talking to another person in the room, or perhaps their imagination – elicits a little information from audience members. From that they start spitballing ideas of what the rest of the show will be about.

On the one hand, this set-up is a bit Hollywood, and people have some idea of what a pitch session is, and on the other hand, it’s a bit period, this strange era where writers decamped to Hollywood on huge salaries and tried to come up with pirate movies or whatever. It’s about capturing that world, the camaraderie of newspaper women and playwrights in a strange land. Lastly, it’s making visible to people what happens in an improv rehearsal where you build off each other, saying “Yes, and…” to try and make something, but we have just put it on stage.

And then just who the show is for…

The show is very much for superfans. We did a Sherlock Holmes show and learned that we’d find very dedicated fans of Sherlock Holmes, or fans of the Sherlock TV show who became interested in anything in that world. Classic movies have that same, slightly romantic, slightly obsessive demographic. TCM watch party people. They should be reassured that this is a loving tribute, not a throwaway thing like “Let’s just give our show a name and a gimmick.” We want to meet Hildy Johnson on the floor of the newspaper office and match our wits with these cool New Yorkers.

In American improv you can be selling your show to other improvisers and whatever the show is, it’s a way to facilitate the improv. In the UK it’s a theatre crowd who will get the show because of whatever the other half is, the half that isn’t the improv is.

The temptation is to build a few different arcs in and constantly be thinking “What happens next” but it can be satisfying for an audience if you say, “You know what, here’s these two people, they’re fighting like cats but they’re destined for each other, there’s a good chance they’ll get together, let’s see” and then there’s a world of secondary characters, bell boys, radio hosts, cops and old grandpas, and they each want something, and if you put them together in different combinations they might get what they want, but as long as you have the very basic engine, stuff you can establish in a couple of lines, and knowledge that North By Northwest style, you can wrap it up in fifteen seconds if you have to, then you can relax.

What you can put in the foreground instead is “Here are some people talking for the joy of talking, some people that love each other hanging out.” That gets you quite a long way. I’m thinking of something like My Favourite Wife, where there’s a dense web of something happening but a lot of the film is “Here are people who will probably end up together, and here are some hijinks.”

Ideas and influences…

When we devised this show we wondered if we could make it like a teleplay from the 50s, where you have three cameras and a mixer and you put it on screen, a movie taking shape at the same time as people move around on the stage. Then we experimented a little bit with clips from old movies almost like reaction GIFs cued up on a board. What we found is that this is tricky to stage, not impossible, but you start to ask the question “Why is this on stage?” and why you don’t, like Rian Johnson with Brick, say, “I’m going to make a loving parody.” Peter Bogdanovich forever!

I didn’t realise quite how central music would be. There’s an amazing pianist, a guy called Tom Hodge, who is a savant level pianist. The first proper rehearsal, Tom said “Are you aware that all jazz standards have this same form?” and he showed us the fish skeleton underneath. We had a go at making songs up, and it turns out, a bit like the simple plot on which you can hang the show, you can create a fun journey inside a Gershwin piece by following those rules. The cast are now really good at this. There are no Busby Berkley routines but, apart from that, you do get the music.

Across the world of improv altogether, you can definitely see some falls from the high wire. Once you get to this kind of level and everybody has done it for a long time you’re not going to see the kind of thousand yard stare of panic you’ll sometimes get with a starter team. Everyone here, when they’re very still, they’re watchable, and when they open their mouth, they’re just great. They can monologue their way out of difficulty. One of the pleasures is that the cast are watching each other for fun as much as doing the thing. The worst that can happen is watching the cast enjoying that.

Filmed improv feels stale and canned, perhaps because you don’t have the feeling of ‘Anything can happen next’ because it already did; something has been nailed down. If you watch an improvised show back, a show that everybody agrees is great, you might notice the branches that didn’t go anywhere, the subplots that seemed significant. What you remember after the live event is what ended up being important, you notice the peak, you notice the end. Maybe this gives improvisers an easier life than playwrights. In a way, we’re like those carnival hucksters with a sign that says “I’m going to trick you.”

What does it mean? It’s a sort of consolation. I’m hesitant to use the word escape but we do go to a world where magical things happen, there’s a kind of romance, and it’s time spent with a group of people who have the same sensibilities. There’s something to be said for there being no dumb characters and, we hope, no silly lines. We’re trying to play to the top of everybody’s intelligence.

I don’t know what you’ll get to see when you visit Talkies in Edinburgh – that’s a good part of the point – but I do know it will be rich, funny stuff, with a film buff’s sense of how the wheels of classic Hollywood would turn.

Talkies: Improvised Classic Hollywood Comedy runs from 12 to 27 August. Tickets are on sale now.

Photos in this post courtesy of Lee Pullen.

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