Philadelphia improv veteran Bobbi Block and the rest of her merry band of delightfully quirky improv all-stars would like to know about your habits in bed. What types of positions, compromising or otherwise, have you found yourself in, whether in, around or even underneath a bed?
Audience members who arrive at Plays and Players Theatre from Feb. 7-22 to see the latest run of Tongue and Groove Spontaneous Theater’s popular stage show “In Bed” will be asked to discreetly and anonymously answer this question.
But fear not: This isn’t one of those interactive theater experiences whereby taking your seat you risk being pulled onstage or into some other potentially embarrassing form of audience participation. With “In Bed,” you just write your anonymous prompt on your anonymous card, and the actors take it from there, using what the audience has written as the jumping-off point for riffs on life, love, relationships and, sometimes, Chinese food.
“What you can expect is Tongue and Groove’s signature style of long-form improv, which is an hour-long montage of scenes and monologues which draw their inspiration from the answers to provocative questions that we ask the audience,” said Bobbi Block, the producing artistic director and founder. “It’s always that we want to be 100% collaborative with the audience and use their stories to inspire our work. But, we’re not acting out their stories; we’re just using them to inspire. It’s similar to a jazz musician riffing off of a theme.”
And, perhaps most importantly, this riff band isn’t interested in playing just one note. Given the very nature of the exercise and what people tend to think about when they think about being in bed, a percentage of the prompts will invariably be risqué. But they certainly don’t have to be and, in fact, Block says she talks to the audience before each show to underscore this very point.
“When we talk to the audience about this question, we’re not just interested in things that are sexual or romantic,” she said. “It could really be anything — ‘we adopted a kitten and it hid underneath our bed for two weeks’; it could be ‘my mother was taking care of me and I threw up all over her in my bed.’ It can really be anything that has anything to do with a bed.”
Audience members are certainly free to write anything they want on their cards — provocateurs in the audience, and there are always a few, may write whatever they wish, no matter how racy. But the company will certainly not be held hostage to over-the-top audience submissions.
“We’ll read it out loud, and people will get a laugh, but we’re not going to act out anything too kinky,” Block said. “We’re not interested in that kind of work. The kind of improv we do is both comic and dramatic, so it really is about honest reflections about how actual relationships work. We don’t do anything goofy or wacky just for the sake of being wacky; we really want to reflect how real people interact with each other. Nobody’s going to, like, spontaneously turn into a frog or something, which is cool in short-form improv but just not what we’re doing here.”
Of Tongue and Groove’s 12-member company, a third are Jewish, which is not surprising, Block said. Like music and more conventional forms of comedy and theater, a healthy number of Jews have always flocked to improv, both as performers and audience members.
Generations ago, Jewish performers, for fear of typecasting, discrimination or just plain ridicule might try to hide their Jewishness or “tone it down”; improvisational comedy is the kind of space where that’d not only be unnecessary but it’d also be counterproductive to the process, which depends on company members to be authentic and to mine the requisite creativity from their lived experiences.
“My philosophy of improvisation is improv what you know. So, for me, my entire experience of being a Jewish person will come through in everything that I do,” Block said. “You might not see it in every single scene, but it will come out in a million different ways: references to having a Jewish mother or going to camp or playing Jewish geography. It’s a million secular, cultural references that come out all the time because that’s who I am.
“If I do a scene, and in the scene somebody endows me with a different religion — let’s say we’re spending Christmas together — then I’m going try to use as much knowledge as I have about Christmas, but it’s not going to be as authentic as if I did a scene about being Jewish. Period.”
Fred Siegel, another Jewish member of Tongue and Groove, agreed that being Jewish is inextricably bound to his identity, and insofar as improv actors’ scenes reflect their lives, his Jewishness is bound to come through.
“Put it this way: I don’t think Bobbi or I could be not Jewish,” Siegel said, laughing. “This isn’t like short-form improv where it’s jokey little scenes; here, we’re doing stuff that really does draw on life as we know it. And life, as I know it, is Jewish.”
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