SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Improvisational acting — whether for experienced performers or first timers — challenges the ability to speak unscripted in a way that both entertains and creates an ever-evolving story and plot for your audience.
These are the observations of two improv actors — one new to that artistic form and the other a long-time performer in it — in Contemporary Theater Company’s first-ever serial improv show, “To Be Continued…” whose 13-week run ends Sept. 5 with the finale about its unfolding soap-opera drama.
It is based in fictional Oldport (Newport with a Wakefield twist) with dueling dynastic families and is dubbed “Tides of Our Lives” after the long-running soap “Days of Our Lives.”
Neal Leaheey, who has many years as an improviser, and Terry Simpson, a veteran scripted actor doing his first improv gig in this production, gave a behind-the-scenes look at their thoughts on improvisation and their performing careers.
Leaheey said that improv offers a natural approach and creates a connection with people for him. He played both Brock and twin brother, Rudolph (with a single switch of colored sport coats and a demeanor from nice to obnoxious).
“It’s fun and it is rewarding,” he said about improv, which is acting created live with characters’ dialogue pushing scenes and plot forward. Performers take cues from other actors, narrators or even the audience for making scenes come alive.
Reaction, whimsy and training in keeping a conversation going underlies the workings of improv, performers said.
“Improvisation is special to me because it encourages actors to be present on stage, face their fears and set aside their ego,” Leaheey explained.
“Improvisation also makes possible anything the mind can imagine on stage,” said this actor, a 1999 graduate in performing arts from the University of Iowa. He has performed overseas, in Boston and now in Rhode Island at the CTC and other theaters.
He said he has been acting since he was in third grade and has found opportunity performing in this form at the CTC. He also can be found in “Maestro,” the CTC’s late night improv show every Friday night at 9:30 p.m. and in the “Murder on the Rails” show at the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport starting in September.
Riley Cash co-directed the CTC soap-opera improv “To Be Continued…” He’s also an improviser and works with Leaheey teaching students about that form of acting.
“Your job is to try to keep the person engaged, to keep them on the stage and to have them want to be on the stage,” he has said about the technique,
Leaheey, 42, agreed. He said he doesn’t plan potential scenes in his mind before performances.
“There’s a quick response and that is a challenge for me,” he said, pointing out that Cash and co-director, Christine Cauchon, would help critique the cast after each show.
Others who have studied this form of acting said improv is about taking risks with your acting and not fearing a scene or lines falling flat for the audience. Failure is good, said both Cash and another CTC improv instructor, Ashley Macamaux, during a previous interview on the technique.
They said that performers learn when impromptu goes wrong and discover how to overcome it when something that happens live doesn’t work out well.
That was one concern of improv newbie Terry Simpson, 73, a long-time lawyer and scripted actor. He said that he started performing in theater during the last 10 years, but has only been in scripted plays where lines are memorized and the development of scenes orchestrated before the performance.
“To Be Continued…” was his first try at improv performing. He played the character Graham Williamson, a self-effacing candidate for governor caught up in a web of deceit by his Russian spy wife, children — one he thought was his and those he didn’t know about — and other continuously unfolding complications in his life.
“There are a lot of people comfortable jumping in the air on stage with me in the show and seeing who will catch them,” he said, referring to the need for improv actors to help each other as they make up dialogue and scenes in front of a live audience.
“When I started this show, I was not one of the free jumpers. I wanted a parachute before I jumped. That was bad improv. Now I am more comfortable taking the leap of faith that someone will catch me,” Simpson said.
“I think I grew through doing this serial by learning live on stage and through the others in the cast working with me,” he said.
He, too, credited Cash and Cauchon, for tips, suggestions and hints for improving performance after each weekly episode.
Simpson, who is also president of CTC’s board of directors, said he started acting after seeing a family member perform.
“Just seeing my younger brother up there doing it…If my younger brother can do it, I can do it,” he recalled. Simpson is the real father of Chris Simpson, founder of CTC, its artistic director and an improviser who played Raul in this series.
“When I decided to try acting and did an audition, Chris looked at me cross-eyed wondering if it was going to work,” he said.
It did and the elder Simpson has performed in many scripted plays in the last several years. He said he also would like to do improv again.
“Every time I get on the stage, I am learning something new,” he said, adding that he’s been a lawyer for many years and understands that job, but acting, such as improv, brings new and refreshing challenges.
His next appearance will be in “Visiting Mr. Green” at The Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick. Following that performance, he would like to perform at the CTC in its scheduled production of the “Christmas Carol.”