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"When you look at YouTube and the culture of social media, you see how the rest of society is now a 'creator.' We expect to take professional level photos on our phones, so why not empower the audience to create a musical on the spot?" So says improv artist Mike Descoteaux. That's why his show Blank! The Musical allows the audience to create every single element of the full-fledged musical they see on stage.
Every night, patrons choose everything from song titles to plot points, and no two versions of Blank! are ever the same. In some ways, of course, the show, which runs through December 14 at New World Stages, extends the tradition of improvised theatre, which dates back at least 50 years. (Even musical improv, which is a relatively new form, has been around since the late 90s.) And as a veteran of major improv troupes like ImprovBoston and Chicago's Second City, Descoteaux is certainly well versed in making spontaneous performances.
But Blank!, which Descoteaux music directs and co-created with fellow musical improv junkies Michael Girts and T.J. Shanoff, is also striding into new frontiers. For one thing, it gives the bare bones aesthetic of musical improv a flashy polish with a technological twist. "Blank! The Musical is a fully produced show," Descoteaux says. "Usually people see musical improv with some well-versed actors, a piano, and a couple of chairs."
Indeed, part of improv's charm is just how little is necessary for a performance. Actors mime their props and create vivid worlds out of thin air. Moreover, many of the city's most famed improv venues (the UCB, the PIT, the Magnet) have a scrappy basement vibe, the familiar scent of stale beer mixing with collegiate camaraderie. Blank!, however, has a full, industry-standard production team behind it and is running at a 300-seat Off-Broadway house. "We have a real pit for this show: piano, wind, reeds and a drummer," says Descoteaux. "Not to mention $400,000 worth of lights."
The show also plays with technology in interesting ways. When audiences arrive they use a special app to suggest what Blank! will be about. During a 15-minute intro, they vote on everything from lines of dialogue and song titles to musical themes and styles of choreography. Not a word or note is written in advance. "We take 15 minutes at the top of the show to get a mountain of suggestions so the audience knows that nothing is prefabbed," Descoteaux says. "They realize it's all 100 percent improvised."
As for how the cast rehearsed Blank!, Descoteaux likens it to a basketball team. "You spend hours practicing as a team. You run drills and plays. You work on individual strength and team dynamics, but when it's game time, it's improvised and the playbook goes out the window. We always ask ourselves: What would Broadway do? What would a musical do? Those are the rules of our game."
Not surprisingly, the moments that feel most like musical theatre often land the best with audiences. But then why see an improvised musical when you can see one on Broadway? "We are well aware of what goes into making a traditional musical," Descoteaux says, adding that there's some 80 years of musical theatre experience between the cast and creators of Blank! "What we're making certainly isn't a replacement for a modern or classic Broadway musical. Blank! is a new take."
To read about a student's experience at Blank! The Musical, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Eliza Bent is a journalist and editor based in Brookyln
Photo by Jenny Anderson