'We Really Need To Laugh Right Now': 'Natatorium' Combines Improv Comedy, Audience Participation And Chamber Music In One Virtual Show
“Last year I produced a chamber music improvisation concert with Density 512… so this year I thought that I could expand upon that and take chamber music improvisation, put it together with improvisational theater, some scripted elements, and audience interaction,” says Kenzie Slottow, the artistic director and producer of the new virtual show Natatorium. “And I didn’t know now to do a lot of that, and so that’s where I approached Kaci.”
Kaci Beeler is a veteran of the Austin improv scene and has been creating virtual improv theater for over a year now – her comedy troupe Parallelogramophonograph (or PGraph for short) started doing shows via Zoom in March of 2020, just as the pandemic lockdowns were starting. “I think at this point I’ve done definitely over 100 virtual shows, maybe more,” Beeler says. “I stopped counting at some point. It just felt like the pandemic will never end so let me just keep doing it this way.”
During the pandemic year, Beeler has become a bit of an expert on producing virtual improv, and she brought those skills to her role as stage director (and actor) for Natatorium. “I don’t have my greenscreen up now, but if I did, I could wildly change the background behind me,” Beeler says. “Which has been such a fun visual gag that we could never do on an improv stage. There’s a lot of [benefits to virtual theater] – you know, like seeing all the performers’ faces up close the whole time is great for comedy.”
Beeler says the show started off as more of a drama but grew more comedic during the production process. “This is definitely a show combining comedy and drama. Everybody in it is funny and they can’t stop themself from being funny," she says. "I think we originally were going to go for a more dramatic show, and then as we were devising it we realized actually, we really need to laugh right now.”
“Yeah, I’m happy it ended up being a comedy,” Slottow says. “I’m really happy it ended up being hilarious.”
Having a basic structure but with plot elements determined by the audience gives Natatorium a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure vibe; it’s meant to be much more interactive than a typical show, streaming or otherwise. “You meet these four characters who are all like kind of down on their luck,” Beeler says. “And then you meet a different set of characters who are not down on their luck – they’re actually doing very well… but they’re not necessarily doing good. And then the audience gets to choose which set of people these four down-on-their-luck schmoes decide to rob.
“When people log on and log in, they’re not just watching a show unfold. They’re interacting with it, so the audience will make choices and give suggestion at certain key points in the story that affect where the story goes next,” Keeler says. “And while there is a clear outline that we have on our end of how the story branches, all the actors are professional improvisers and they are improvising the dialogue so it’s extra fresh.”
One of the key features of Natatorium is that it’s not just the dialogue that’s improvised; the chamber music score for the show is also created in the moment. “So the music is influenced by the story and the action but then feeds back into influencing the actors because it’s happening in real time,” Beeler says. “So everything is live.”
“One of my favorite things is that the audience can talk with each other,” Slottow says. “And compliment the performers during the show without interrupting any of the action that’s going on. We just don’t get that in live [in-person] shows. It would interrupt. We’re definitely mixing worlds here. And in classical music especially, there’s this… centuries-old practice of not clapping between movements, of being completely silent while you’re listening to music. Your appreciation is shown only in a very specific way by clapping loudly at the end. And so I wanted to just do away with that by bringing the… musicians in my circle into more of a theater world, but then going even further with that, to the virtual world where chat can be happening constantly and not really interrupt anything at all and it can have the audience feel like they’re more connected to each other.”
'Natatorium' is presented by Density 512 and American Berserk Theatre. It'll be performed on April 16 and 18.