Lifegame, the singular Off-Broadway theatrical venture in which improv actors recreate scenes from a civilian guest's life, closes Dec. 3 at the Jane Street Theatre.
By close, the show, a hybrid mix of whimsy, improv, soul bearing, reality and humor, will have played 19 previews and 78 performances. Audiences and critics have largely embraced the work for its unusual nature — neither play nor traditional improv, it's often been called compassionate, touching and heartfelt. Nevertheless, an audience didn't build for the populist piece and producers pulled the plug.
The show is directed and designed by Britain's Improbable Theatre members Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch, and created by Keith Johnstone. The New York Post reported there is interest in the concept being developed for television.
Lifegame, the "instant dramatization" show, had its premiere in March 1998 in Kendall, England, and subsequently played the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Its U.S. premiere was seen at the La Jolla Playhouse earlier this year.
Tickets are $25-$45. Jane Street Theatre is at 113 Jane Street (in the Hotel Riverview at the West Side Highway). Call (212) 239-6200 for information. *
In the culture of "Survivor" and "Big Brother," is there anybody who can resist the spotlight?
This is the question being asked by the creators of Lifegame, the theatrical performance piece in which a civilian is interviewed on stage about his or her life, and then is witness to an instant interpretation of their milestone events by an acting troupe.
The show made its Manhattan debut at the Jane Street Theatre Sept. 12, after causing a sensation in England and southern California. Official opening was Sept. 28.
Created by improvisational theatre artist Keith Johnstone and realized by members of Britain's Improbable Theatre, Lifegame is billed as spontaneous and risky storytelling, offering a new character and a fresh life story eight times a week. Those interested in being guests are not required to act — it's merely an on-stage interview.
"We're looking for people that you'd like to spend time with, people that you'd enjoy talking to at a party," said co-director Phelim McDermott. "The best guests are those that don't worry about being funny or entertaining — that's our job, after all — but who find it easy to be themselves. One of the great joys of the show is watching the guest as they watch scenes from their life unfold before their eyes."
The creators caution: "It's important to state Lifegame is not therapy, not psychodrama, not truth or dare. Nor is it our intention to be in any way invasive or to mine humor at the expense of our guest."
Guests are not paid, but there is a parting gift and hospitality.
Direction and design are by Improbable's Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch (who also appear in the piece). Crouch and McDermott directed Shockheaded Peter, seen in the U.S. in 1999-2000.
Unlike traditional improv, which might have audience members shouting ideas to a team of actors, Lifegame seeks to celebrate the humanity and drama possible in everyday, ordinary lives.
The show is rooted in a Johnstone game called "How It Was." Like that theatre exercise, Lifegame attempts to find out as much as possible about "how it was" for a person as he or she was growing up, and in turning points of their adult lives.
"There's one game played where you try to recreate a family meal or a family outing," co-director and co-designer Phelim McDermott told Playbill On-Line. "Sometimes, when you hit a vein, they will say it's uncanny."
At every show, a different pre-selected and completely willing guest is asked questions about his or her life. Based on the stories they tell, the seven-member British ensemble acts out scenes from the person's past. The show has an open-ended run and, eventually, American actors will take on the storytelling tasks.
The guest, an ordinary person the audience has never heard of, has the chance to tell the company they are either misrepresenting a personal event or that they are dead-on.
McDermott said that in the brief screening process, done days in advance, coordinators try to get a range of people.
"It's great to have people who have done very creative things, but it's good to have people who have ordinary lives that people can relate to," he said.
Lifegame does not seek people under 30 to be guests, however, "mainly because people over 30 have lived a bit and they can look at their past with a little bit of awareness."
And the evenings are not pre-determined.
"We don't [meet] them until about an hour and half before the show," McDermott said. "We meet them for 20 minutes and show them what kinds of things we might do in the show, what kind of games," he said. "It doesn't help to know anything before the show. What makes it work is that it's spontaneous. If you do know stuff, it can get in the way."
The improvisational show was first presented at The Brewery Arts Centre in Kendall, England, and then the Lyric Hammersmith in London. Audiences at the La Jolla Playhouse ate up performances there earlier this summer.
Is it therapeutic for the guest and the audience?
"If it is, it's a happy byproduct," he said. "If theatre is good theatre, it is going to be therapeutic anyway. Storytelling by its nature is therapeutic. But it's not like 'therapy.'"
McDermott said it wasn't uncommon to see audiences crying out of recognition, and talking after the show about their own experiences.
"It does make people examine their lives, I think," he said.
Sometimes, the performers are surprised by the candor and weight of the stories they hear.
"People come on the show and say they haven't had interesting lives and their small turning points turn out to be epic," he said. "There were more than a couple people who told big stories: A woman who told a story about her abusive childhood and how she wanted her daughter to have a different experience. She tells that story publicly, and it becomes a story that is part of the community."
Is it raucous? Wild? Shocking?
"It's actually a very gentle show, it's like spending a gentle couple of hours with someone and having a personable chat with them," McDermott said. "What we like about it is that it's not just laughs, although the show is funny. But it's funny out of recognition rather than lampooning people."
Lifegame is presented by David Stone, Dan Markley, Nina Essman and Julian Schlossberg.
The company includes Niall Ashdown, Angela Clerkin, Crouch, Guy Dartnell, Stella Duffy, McDermott, Toby Park and Simpson.
— By Kenneth Jones