Washington Improv Theater stages feature-length spontaneous shows at Studio Theatre

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Washington Improv Theater (Part 1)

When you hear the phrase “improv theater,” you most likely think of the short-form games that you would see on TV’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Now imagine if the audience threw out a suggestion and the actors had to spontaneously stage a feature-length musical?

That’s the idea behind Washington Improv Theater’s newest show “Playing It By Ear,” featuring the ensemble group iMusical at Studio Theatre in D.C. from Sept. 30 to Oct. 22.

“We do basically a complete musical theater production improvised live every night: music, lyrics, scenes, everything is made up on the spot,” Artistic and Executive Director Mark Chalfant told WTOP. “We’re crafting narratives, we’re playing characters that sustain for the length of the show. … That adds up to a greater whole than the short-form game approach.”

The group will take audience suggestions by asking for a relationship between two people.

“That can range from babysitter and parent or ex-fiancées or IRS auditor and auditee,” Chalfant said. “From there, we’re perceiving what is their relationship, what are the questions of the scene, what are the patterns, how is comedy hitting this moment?”

The goal is to laugh, but expect a range of genres. “Some shows are absolutely silly and zany, but even those silly and zany shows may have a somber moment or a serious, heartbreaking moment. The nice thing about musical theater is that it can really swing the audience through a lot of different emotional experiences in the same performance.”

The iMusical shows feature a pianist and up to 10 actors. “If it’s a bar scene and it’s described as really crowded, then everyone in the cast is probably going to find their way on stage. If it’s a character lost in the woods, we’ll all stay offstage until we’re needed.”

Each improvised musical runs roughly 40 to 45 minutes, but your $15 ticket will get you into the door for a block of at least two musicals from various local improv companies.

“Playing It By Ear” kicks off Washington Improv Theater’s 25th anniversary season, as well as a year-long residency at the newly renovated Studio Theatre on 14th Street, Northwest.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Chalfant said. “We have a full year to play on three of their stages in a neighborhood where we’ve been performing for a long time at our former home at Source, so it’s really exciting for all of us. … The fact that they reached out to craft this residency for us, the first one of its kind that they’ve ever done, it’s a real honor for us.”

Find more information here.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Washington Improv Theater (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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