By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — The thought of being picked on by a performer makes 99 per cent of humanity cringe. The fun of watching insult comics is the Russian Roulette thrill of going in knowing that there’s little chance that you’re making it out of Yuk Yuk’s without having your sexuality called into question, but maybe you’ll be lucky this time. Legend Has It, created by Loose Moose improv alum Rebecca Northan, is the one show where you’ll really wish the performers would pick you out. In this play, if the word even fits any more, one audience member gets to be the hero of a swords and sorcery epic.
The premise evolved from Northan’s earlier show Blind Date, where in each show one audience member would be taken onstage for a date. In other words, she took something that makes everybody nervous and put it in front of an audience, and yet it was the most charming thing in the world. Northan was asked to pitch the next evolution of the audience participation improv play to Alberta Theatre Projects and, being a lifelong fantasy fan with a particular love for the late and very great Terry Pratchett, she decided to do epic fantasy.
“I put together a cast,” Northan says. “It was originally Renee Amber, Bruce Horak, [brother] Jamie Northan and Mark Meer.”
(If that last cast member’s name sounds familiar then I embrace you as a fellow Mass Effect fan: Meer played the male Commander Shepherd and a whole host of other voices.)
When the cast was assembled they set about building not just a play, but a world. The story is simple enough: the land of Jaro is under the clawed thumb of a dark wizard (or sorceress in recent versions) and adorable in-no-way-Hobbit creatures called Mumplings are having their souls harvested, but there’s a prophecy of a hero from beyond the Fourth Wall and such. The challenge for the performers is to be able to adapt to anything the chosen audience member throws at them.
“We’re all highly-trained improvisers. Together we have 117 years of improv training. We have a structure that we call the ‘colouring book’ that the audience member fills in,” Northan says.
“We spent the first week of rehearsals coming up with the structure and the next week bringing in our beta testers. It really is a sort of game: we’d run them through it see what that human variable would do.”
Northan recalls one particular audience member: “She was eavesdropping on these goblins talking about feeling disgruntled with their position in the castle, and the way she came up with to get past them was to say that she was there for a job interview. They let her in immediately and she was immediately ushered to the head of the goblin patrol to interview for the position of executioner.”
Because these serendipitous moments are what makes the show, the creators are opening up the world during their next season as part of Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects. Wherein the first shows a “player” might be faced with two options, now there can be as many as six or seven. It’s the difference between a simplistic dungeon-crawl and Skyrim or Dragon Age (Mark Meer’s in that fantasy mega-franchise too.)
Their innovation has them performing both off-Broadway at The Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Whitehorse. Both are big gigs, and likely to make the show itself even bigger, which means that every night one lucky person gets to be a hero with even greater freedom.
“We’ve been looking to put more control in the hands of the audience member and make it more dangerous for us. We’re all adrenaline junkies.”
Legend Has It is an ATP project that runs from Nov. 24 – Dec. 31 at the Martha Cohen Theatre.AB, Alberta, Alberta Theatre Projects, audience participation in theatre, improv, interactive theatre, Legend Has It, Martha Cohen Theatre, Rebecca Northan