Improvised Tragedy Review (Fringe August 27)

Before Paying Melpomene’s Price is self-published, I thought I should improve my ‘street cred’. There’s only one way to do that: go see more theatre. Yes: see more theatre instead of read more theatre. I’ve become an ‘armchair critic’. Sort of like ‘armchair historians’ or ‘armchair archaeologists’: they prefer to do things in the comfort of their own homes rather than going out and getting their fingers dirty. Oh yes, are the quotation marks around the slang terms (‘street cred’) driving you crazy? Yes, all the styleguides say not to use them like that! Ah, I am a bad man!

Well, what do you know?–when I was thinking about going to see a show, this sign on a lamppost jumped out of nowhere:

Improvised Theatre Poster

Improvised Theatre Poster

Hmmm. Nice poster! Slightly detached look. The look of distance, perhaps. All black (well, it’s black and white). Wearing sackcloth. They must be either philosophers or characters in a tragedy!

But this isn’t any tragedy. This is Improvised Tragedy. And Improvised Tragedy was playing tonight. It was meant to be. I could see a strange show and improve my credibility. Who knew that tragedy could be improvised? Tragedy turns into comedy easily enough (think Gloucester jumping off the white cliffs of Dover in Lear). It would be interesting to see if Improvised Tragedy could maintain the tension of tragedy. What is more, an improvised tragedy would probably reduce tragedy done to the bare bones. An x-ray vision of tragedy. An x-ray vision of tragedy is just what I wanted to see. The question in my mind: will their version of tragedy conform with mine? It looks like from their blurb that the writers of this piece are also into the philosophy of tragedy:

‘Tragedy’ claims that whatever the disaster is, the disaster is exceptional. Lightning Theatre’s The Improvised Tragedy is both looking though the past at the history of the art of dramatic tragedy, and a progression for dramatic improvisation and the future of the art of tragedy. Together with your help we will discover what it’s like to say yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes.

The Improvised Tragedy

The Improvised Tragedy is written and performed by Lightning Theatre. The show is part of Victoria’s Fringe Festival, 11 days of unjuried contemporary plays at 11 different venues spread across town. Lottery determines who takes part. Experimental madness! A good chance to see up and coming artists perform.

The show played at the Roxy. Tickets were $11 and you also needed a $6 Fringe Button to get in. The Fringe Button gets you in all the shows. The $11 goes to the artists. The $6 probably goes to the venue. On opening night, the crowd was 28 strong, translating into proceeds of $308. The stage forces consisted of 3 actors, 1 musician on keyboard and a wind instrument, and a lighting tech. That works out to be $61.60 for a day’s work for each. The people selling / collecting tickets were Fringe volunteers. If the proceeds from the Fringe button goes to the venue (I think it must go into a pot which is distributed in the end somehow), the Roxy would have gotten $66 to open the doors that night. Good thing there are corporate sponsors. A raucous university crowd in attendance tonight.

By the way, I chatted with the actors before the show. That’s the nice thing about Fringe shows: audience and actors can interact. One of the actors was performing with a fresh (couple of hours old) sling on his right hand: he was riding his bike and got right hooked by a car that afternoon. Kudos to him for performing that night. Hey, as they say, ‘the show must go on’!


At the beginning of the show, the three actors ask the audience for various words. The winning selections were: bike, metamorphosis, and … can’t remember the third word! So, in the space of 50 minutes, they did three tragic skits based on the three words. There are spoilers below, but since every show should be different (it’s improv), brave readers read on! But I would imagine that they must have some kind of skeleton they work from…

The first tragedy is about a cyclist. He’s competitive but can’t quite win. A friend introduces him to doping. He starts winning. But turns into a horrible human being. Sort of like Lance Armstrong.

The second tragedy is about an unemployed hobo. He gets the job offer of a lifetime: work one day, decide yourself how much you want to be paid. But in that one day, anything goes. It turns out the employer steals his health and youth. It reminded me of Dorian Grey. But from a different perspective.

The third tragedy was about a stutterer and a gimp. He has the chance to try miracle cure. It works. But there are side effects: he becomes like an animal. He is rejected from society. It’s sort of like what happens to a Marvel comic villain.

The Idea of Tragedy

Interesting: in each of the three skits the hero is tempted (winning, job, and cure). He makes a wager (friends, health, and side effects). He rolls the dice. And pays the price. The x-ray vision of tragedy by the Lightning Theatre reduces tragedy to a sort of gambling instinct. I like it. This is tragedy distilled!

And yes, there were guffaws plenty from the audience. This wasn’t any shortcoming of the production: the actors did a great job. It has more to do with the nature of tragedy and comedy. It’s a thin line between the tragic and the comic. You know what they say: ‘When I get a papercut it’s a tragedy; when you fall into an open sewer and die it’s a comedy’. Who was that–Mel Brooks perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am watching others who are Doing Melpomene’s Work.