SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The phrase “To be continued,” a favorite trope of soap opera cliff-hangers, is a tried and true tactic for bringing audiences back over and over. In Wakefield this summer, the Contemporary Theater Company is torquing up the suspense by putting on a show that no one — not even the performers — knows how it will end.
In the finest fashion of slippery soaps taking viewers on one emotional roller-coaster ride after another, every Thursday the theater performs a show with an episodic place in a season-long story. The show is packed with surprise twists and turns for all involved, because there’s no script for this comedic melodrama — all the drama, and the laughs, are concocted live on stage. Naturally it’s called, “To Be Continued... An Improvised Soap Opera.”
Art imitating life.
Yes, it looks, smells and tastes like the old timer “Days of Our Lives,” but there are no sands through the hour glass measuring those days. In this play it’s dubbed “Tides of Our Lives.” Whether that reference is to tidepools, tidal waves or tidings of good cheer, is not yet explained, but all seem possible to happen or just show up in the coming weeks.
“To Be Continued…” And that’s just the point. The never-ending reveal party lasts all summer. It draws on classical episodic drama, the hallmark of broadcast serials that have entertained since the golden age of radio, and engaged listeners or viewers wondering “who done it” and what happens next.
And just under the surface these daytime serials allow followers to re-live their own thorny conflicts, lustful desires, thrill-seeking times, juicy gossip, unresolved mysteries all with emotions stilling in a tidepool of life.
“It all started when Wilhelmina Davenport’s daughter, Drew, is revealed to have eloped with Mark Williamson, heir to the fortune of…” and details dribble out about two dynastic families of Oldport who clash over nearly everything.
Co-director Christine Cauchon put it this way, “As anyone with access to television can tell you, these shows suck us in and somehow, an hour later, we’re invested in the lives of the characters on the screen.”
And that’s the grand plan of theater Artistic Director Chris Simpson for these unscripted, live and made-up-at-the-moment — called improvised or improv for short — performances.
“As theater artists, we want to be creating spontaneity, vulnerability, aliveness, truthfulness in all that we’re doing,” said Simpson, himself playing the dashing and silvery-tongued Raul and an aficionado of improv, especially at this community theater.
“The vulnerability gives a richer experience. You laugh at your mistakes and accept when things go sideways,” he said. “We are not the high priests of art and hide behind our own walls.”
“Mark Williamson is heir to the fortune of Graham and Crystal Williamson. Their parents’ fury doesn’t prevent them from throwing a wedding – whether the kids want one or not. Things get intense at the wedding as Mark refuses Wilhelmina’s improbable demand that he take the Davenport name, and Drew reveals that her love for Mark may not be real.”
This plot preview brought new developments last Thursday among the performers, egged on by narrators Weston (Charlie Santos) and Penny (Maggie Cady). They are as direct and intruding about keeping a quick tempo in the performance as they are funny with their sidebar commentary to performers’ actions and lines.
Mark Williamson (Tyler Brown), in a soft voice, said that he’s angry that Drew (Jess Ring) has left him.
From above, narrators speaking with the seeming authority of a deity, command, “Can you do it a little bit louder, tell ‘em how you really feel.”
Williamson turns his head, swooshing his long brown hair from side to side, cribs a laugh in the corner of his mouth, then blurts out, yelling, “I’m angry she’s gone. Why did she do that?”
When Wilhelmina (Valerie Tarantino), provocateur and collector of studs for her unsatiated needs, seems to dare the narrators as she starts down a descriptive road bordering on bare explanations of her sexual exploits.
But narrators jump in, “No, no, can’t go there…” and then Wilhelmina quickly pivots to “You know, marital relations.”
In another part, talking to her son Mark, she said, “I’m not going to talk about my entire past with men, honey” as he gives his mother the don’t-even-go-there look as she brings him to the fringe of reveal intimacies.
“It’s not to say your father wasn’t the love of my life, he’s the love of my current life,” she added, bringing loud laughter from the audience.
And that is just a taste of the spur-of-the-moment improv in CTC’s “To Be Continued...”
Just as seen in the TV soaps, Contemporary Theater’s stage had a typical living room scene with bookcases and desks as well as a bar set up for those moments of drinking-revealing-and-shocking kinds of conversation.
The beach scenes were another matter. Yet, even without having sand, actors improvised with gusto as they pretended to swim — while walking and bobbing bent over with hand over head, cupping the air, and seeming more like jumping dolphins than swimmers.
Recovering from his faux swim, though, Raul (Simpson) poured water on himself right before entering the stage to have the effect just right from a dip in the ocean.
“Meanwhile, Graham plans a run for office, but secrets from his past may surface. In a touching scene, Mark convinces his younger sister Hope to put down her homework and have some fun – while she still can. What trouble will she get herself into?”
Amid the drama comes some poignant moments well executed. The diversity of approach to the complexity – or lack of it – in scenes often first emerges on a performer’s face – and a quick look around this theater revealed it also happened with the audience, too.
“Brains on the face. You see their brains thinking,” said patron and theater benefactor Jim Seymour, who with his wife, Sharon, come to performances regularly at CTC, as he described the art of improv.
Jess Ring, of Coventry, who plays Drew, agreed that thinking in real time is the challenge with improvisation. “We create our own story and bring out our own feelings, taking cues from each other.”
Cady, the narrator, summed it up: “We know where it (the story) has been, but we don’t know where it is going.”
Tiffany Fenton, also of Coventry, said, “You are constantly listening. It’s really about that mindfulness of being in the moment.” Emphasizing reality is important, she added.
“The brother of Wilhelmina’s deceased husband, Brock Davenport, finds himself in the middle of everything as he takes risks with his international smuggling operation, and even bigger risks romantically, getting stuck in a love triangle with his sultry girlfriend Ana María and his dead brother’s alluring wife.”
This raw art imitating life is one reason the Seymours, of Wickford, like improv and donated more than $10,000 to help keep various performances running year-round for original entertainment in the theater.
“We felt we wanted to help CTC to be independent and we believe in giving with ‘a warm hand,’” said Sharon Seymour. “I found it fresh and funny and joyful.”
“What we see is varied, intimate, often funny, always heartfelt. We get to expose ourselves to art, up close and personal,” she added.
“Where will Brock Davenport find comfort? Will his not-as-innocent-as-she-looks new employee Lillian take him down, or will Lillian’s old friend (and Ana’s ex-lover) Raúl go after him instead? At the end of the episode, things get complicated as Ana makes a move on Raúl – when we learn that Raúl’s love Bianca might be on her way back. How did she survive ‘the accident?’”
More to come each week in “To Be Continued....”
The cast - Tyler Brown, Alijah Dickenson, Tiffany Fenton, Neal Leaheey, Jess LeClair, Carolyn Morey, Jess Ring, Chris Simpson, Terry Simpson, Kaitlyn Sweeny, Valerie Tarantino, Charlie Santos and Maggie Cady.
Co-directors - Riley Cash and Christine Cauchon; Stage Managers - Alex Graudins and Wendy Peitsch; Light Board Operator - Dean Hernandez; Costume Designer - Valerie Tarantino and Scenic Designer - Rebecca Magnotta; Production Manager – Tammy Brown and Live Accompaniment and Original Music – Eden Casteel.
Run time: About 90 minutes.
Previous week developments in the story can be found each Thursday in The Independent.
“To Be Continued…” plays every Thursday through Aug 29, at 7:30 pm at the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield. For tickets and information, call 401 218 0282 or visit www.thecontemporarytheater.com