A new show opening at the University of Minnesota this weekend takes improvisation to new heights. A group of students developed "The War Within: All's Fair" from scratch, under the watchful eye of three of the Twin Cities' most gifted physical comedians.
Dominique Serrand, Steve Epp, and Nathan Keepers are members of "The Moving Company," an ensemble which rose from the rubble of Theater de la Jeune Lune, after it collapsed a few years back.
Around that same time, Serrand received an invitation from some theater students at the school, who asked if he would come and teach them. When Serrand pointed out he wasn't on the faculty, the students countered by saying the theater was open on Sundays.
"And the rooms were empty, and they'd pay me out of their pockets," Serrand recalled.
So that's what they did for the first few months. Serrand would run the students through exercises and then they would pass the hat.
Now a couple of years later the arrangement is much more formalized. The university hired the Moving Company to develop a show -- alongside the students -- through improvisation. The show's topic is war -- not the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq, Serrand says, but the everyday conflicts of ordinary life which become the war within us all.
At a recent rehearsal on stage at the university's Rarig Center, the students play with their ideas such as using meaningless epithets they invented. The nonsense words, like "spackle basket" and "swarp," sound fierce and rude.
The young actors pretend to hurl things as hard as they can into the seats, while screaming their newly minted curses at the back walls.
"Good, good!" interrupts Nathan Keepers. "But don't get caught up in just screaming those words."
Keepers tells the actors to concentrate on getting the movement right, because a lot of this show will end up being physical comedy.
The students improvise scenes about office tensions, and the animosity generated by simply standing in line next to someone. They explore, petty jealousies, and the aggravation caused by people who are deliberately unhelpful -- or just cough too much. But first and foremost, they want the show to be funny.
"There's not a big agenda, or political didactic statement we are looking to make," said Steve Epp. "We are in a sense trying to celebrate the humanity and stupidity and ridiculous qualities that come out of that."
The students are engrossed in what they are doing, but they also admit to being a little mystified.
"People keep on asking what the show is all about," said one actor.
"How long is it? What's it going to be? You've just got to be, 'I don't know,'" said another.
Yet they have confidence in what they are doing, and in the guidance they're receiving from Serrand, Epp and Keepers.
"They are geniuses," said one student. "They know exactly what they are doing. This is their craft."
"Except you don't understand what they are doing," another said with a laugh.
Just three weeks later they have a show, reminiscent of early Jeune Lune productions, where eccentrics take matters to extremes over minute insults and faked curse words.
"The War Within" opens this weekend at the Rarig Center on the U of M's West Bank campus. It will return in the spring with a professional cast, including Serrand Epp and Keepers, who will develop the play's ideas even further with other actors.