The city is overrun by gremlins. The White House has been wiped out by aliens.
A plane arrives for a night landing without an experienced pilot on board.
Or something like that.
For eight weeks this summer, the six-member cast of Florida Studio Theatre’s We’re Doomed will improvise a disaster movie on location. They will go out and ask the audience to vote for a title and then come up with their roles and plot to fill the 90 minutes joke by joke.
No two shows are the same, but all are rooted in the same discipline.
“Some days. I’m not going to be the queen of the show,” says cast member Sarah Durham. “Some days I’m going to be D’s plot and I have to be okay with that. But after you’ve done it for a while, it’s just as fun to watch your teammates succeed and get those big laughs as it is to get the big laugh yourself.
Will Luera, Florida Studio Theatre’s director of improv, directs and acts in We’re Doomed, and says the hard work is done before they ever step on stage.
The cast participates in a brainstorming exercise called the Genre Cauldron, which helps them evaluate what they think is funny in a given situation. They build a connection, an understanding of how and why these films work on our psychology. The unifying thing about disaster movies is that we watch them because we root for the characters to beat the odds, and Luera says that’s because we see ourselves in each of the roles they play.
“I think in these movies that have heavy archetypes, whether subconsciously or consciously, you put yourself there,” Luera says. “Who would I be in this situation? Will I be the main character? Am I the overthinker? Am I the cynical hero? The crazy conspiracy theorist? Am I the love or am I the follower? Am I the villain, the one causing this? I think it’s very easy to look at them and find a character that you relate to.”
One of the cast members, Valerie Dale, was recently a member of FST’s summer intensives, and she worked on scripts just like this one with Luera as her instructor. Now she’s a full cast member, and for Luera, the show is a natural extension of his work with students.
The format of “We’re Doomed” is simple. Each night the cast comes out and asks the audience to vote for a title. And then they do it without question, without huddling or even whispering in each other’s ear.
This is the art form and it doesn’t matter what title you came up with; they will find something funny in it.
“Sometimes the audience comes up with a title that maybe doesn’t sound like a disaster movie. After that, it’s up to us,” Luera says. “If the title is ‘Planting Flowers with Mom’, well, we’ll take it. If you vote for it, we will.
“We’re not going to squeeze anything more than the title. We won’t ask you to change anything. But we’re going to turn this title into a disaster movie.”
Once they have the title, they’ll start with a “wide shot” that allows cast members to introduce each other and subtly suggest where the story is going.
If you watch closely enough, you can see their wheels turning as they each figure out their role.
That’s part of the magic; the actors do not know where they are going any more than the audience.
They heed the collaborative cues their fellow cast members send out and add detail to the theatrical stew with every sentence.
“Once we all find an overlapping space, we start playing in it,” Luera says. “There is a certain tension and release of tension that is important for disaster movies.
“If you look at Poseidon Adventure, you’re still 25 minutes away and they haven’t had the New Year’s party yet. You have to prepare for the moment when everything goes wrong.”
Everything can go wrong. And everything can go wrong. And that can be liberating for a performer.
But everything is moving so fast and it can get away from them if they are not careful.
“If we create aliens and tidal waves and we create a building that burns and we create a hostage situation, we have to solve all these problems,” says Durham.
“The more problems we create, the harder it is to actually have a narrative line. Otherwise, we’re just trying to figure out how to deal with every opponent that comes our way.”
Performers, whatever role they play, have to wear many hats. Literally. Durham said she played seven different characters in one Halloween show, each marked by a different outfit.
One of them was wearing glasses and another was wearing a helmet or a straitjacket.
Since this is a disaster movie, it’s a cast that calls for refinement. The audience is often included in these performances and must be just as quick on their feet as the actors.
But that’s not a problem because most of them have imagined escaping from their own Titanic.
“I think audiences are a lot more intuitive than we give them credit for,” Luera says. “If you just put in the right space, they’ll jump right in. If we need extra soldiers to fight the zombies or extra zombies to fight the soldiers, they will jump in right away. They have never failed me.”
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