Think fast

Scenes from Abyad Aswad, ImproBeirut’s latest show. (courtesy of ImproBeirut)

ImproBeirut, which was launched in March 2008, claims to be the first professional improvisation troop in Lebanon and the whole Middle East. NOW sat down with founder, director and producer Lucien Bourjeily and two of the group’s actors, Sabine Ojeil and Raouf Khalifa, to discuss the art of improvisation, ImproBeirut’s work to date, and the group’s upcoming 24-hour improvisation marathon taking place at the end of the month.       

NOW: Define improvisation.

Bourjeily: Improvisation is theater without a predefined text. Broadly, it is spontaneous reaction and in-the-moment performance, mainly based on interactivity between the audience and the performers. The audience sets the theme – otherwise you cannot tell for sure if it is improv... 

NOW: How did you get started?

Bourjeily: We started in March 2008 with improv in the streets. Actually, we were really exploring the art of improvisation and were not sure where it would end up. It was experimental, and we found that passers-by were very interested in the interactive nature of the performance and started to join in with us. As actors who are used to traditional, indoor performances, it was amazing for us. It was the first time we would go to the audience, instead of them coming to the theater.

We started in the streets of Ain Mreisseh, then went on to different cities, like Byblos. We performed on Bliss Street, then in Gemmayzeh. Actually, we were scheduled to perform there on May 10, 2008 and carried out with the performance, in spite of what was happening next door, [gun battles between Hezbollah and pro-government fighters] in Hamra. We had street theater juxtaposed [with] street conflict – in a way stating we prefer arts to fighting.

What has been the overall response in Lebanon to improvisation?

Bourjeily: It has been great. People love it. Interestingly, their reaction depends on the location, because of course, every place and street is different in Lebanon. After three to four months of street performance, we moved indoors for our first show, Mitlna Mitlak [Like Us, Like You].

Moving indoors gave us more space for verbal rather than just physical improvisation, given the absence of noise from the streets. It was a great experience. We were just refining what we learned outdoors.

Khalifa: The name Mitlna Mitlak is also particularly symbolic, meaning you as an audience are like us, the actors. You the spectator are also a creator and performer. Each show depends on the audience. They are the playwrights. They judge the work and design its course.

This has never been done in Lebanon?

Bourjeily: Professional improvisation? Never. It has been used as training before, but not as an art form and performance in itself.  Improv warms the actors up during rehearsals and lightens up the atmosphere, but there is always a text in theater. Not in improv. Anything, and I repeat anything, can happen. That’s the beauty. 
What is something particularly beautiful that you have seen?

A nice, complete, creative story, with a climax and conflicts unraveling before you. That for us is amazing. And every night is something different.

As actors, what is your experience like?

Ojeil: I started in the streets with Lucien [Bourjeily] in 2008. Improv is very different from classic theater, obviously, given interactivity. It’s really amazing; the audience can support you, inspire you or not. This never happens in classical theater, where there is always a “fourth wall” between us and the audience.

Khalifa: I started as part of the audience at Mitlna Mitlak. During the performance’s final moments, Lucien chose me to continue a scene. Thereafter, he invited me to check out the workshop. [Afterward] I started performing each night with Mitlna Mitlak. 
Tell me about the evolution of your work.
Bourjeily: Mitlna Mitlak was going to go for a month, but we extended our weekly performances by five to six months. People came back, time and time again, because every show is different and unpredictable.  

Khalifa: We also travelled to Amsterdam for the International Improvisation Theater Festival, where we performed in English, as opposed to our usual Arabic. Then in April, we went to Jordan for the Amman International Theater Festival. We were the only ones doing improv, and [the audience] loved it. Everyone was asking what it was about. We also joined the Hammana Festival during the summer and did performances at Roof 68 for three to four months each Thursday.

Ojeil: Currently, we are performing Abyad Aswad, which is “sports theater” with two groups competing. They perform short scenes, and judges and people vote. Lucien acts as the moderator or referee. We take the theme from the audience and Lucien gives us a format we must adapt to, basically the rules of the game. For example, the theme could be an interview. Then, based on the referee, [teams can receive] a red card, yellow card, etc.  Finally, there is a vote and a winner is named.

Can you tell us about the workshop this month?

Bourjeily: It is for improvisers of all levels, an intensive 16-hour workshop on four consecutive Saturdays.  It is for those who want to do improv professionally because improv is entirely different than acting – just like skiing is different from snowboarding. Both might be onstage, but there is a big difference. Improvisers are immediate storytellers, and story-telling techniques are inherent to the performance.  Creativity skills, thinking outside of the box, and making something from nothing are all essential.

What’s next?

Bourjeily: March 27 is World Theater day, and we will do a 24-hour nonstop improvisation marathon, something we have never even come close to doing before. From 9 p.m. to 9 p.m. the following day, we will act out all forms of improv. At the end, we will do a recap with statistics on the number of scenes, audience attendance, etc. All our attention is presently focused on preparing for the big challenge.