Almost Live

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A local group of improv actors blurs the line between stage and screen

Who says only perfectionists can make great movies? Such wisdom is lost on the Seattle Neutrino Project (SNP), a 20-member improv-movie team out to prove that artistic mastery and instant gratification can peacefully coexist. Indeed, in the wrong hands, a fully improvised movie would hardly outstrip its gimmicky premise, but this isn’t your everyday coalition of cast and crew. It’s an ensemble helmed by competent veterans from Seattle’s improv-theater scene, so polished at getting it right on the first take you might not know they’re winging it.

In a crossbreeding of cinema and live theater, SNP begins an evening much like conventional stage improv. The cast solicits ideas from an in-house audience to incorporate in its performance. But instead of delivering a live skit, the team then unleashes three to five camera crews on the streets of Seattle and shoots a short movie based entirely on the suggestions. Alleyways and local taverns become backdrops. Unwitting passersby are cast in supporting roles. The music score? Dubbed on the fly, courtesy of an in-theater DJ. The audience watches multiple story lines play out on screen, each one separated by only a few minutes while the crew goes out to shoot and then runs the tape back to the theater.

The crowd-coaxed suggestions provide great fodder for absurd plots (one audience member’s blurting of the word “vanity,” for example, spawned a scene between two narcissistic male prostitutes vying for the affections of a bi-curious client). The troupe’s manic unscripted pacing rivals classic British sitcoms of old and, unlike, say, a typical Adam Sandler vehicle, the absence of a script actually works in the movie’s favor. In the end, the three stories intertwine for a superbly conjured final act, and the players return to the theater to take their bows.

SNP artistic director Justin Sund first honed his improv chops with the St. Louis-based Mama’s Pot Roast, a college ensemble. In 2000, the Enumclaw native returned to the Northwest and joined the long-running Jet City Improv troupe. But it was just over a year ago that Sund and SNP co-producer Matt Grabowski learned of a pioneering group of New York mavericks called Neutrino Nation who were ushering improv into the world of cinema. “Matt showed me the [Seattle Festival of Improv Theater] submission tape from Neutrino New York,” Sund recalls. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

The two friends fell for the strange hybrid concept, and Sund licensed use of the Neutrino franchise-thus testing Seattle’s experimental-hotbed potential. Sund knew making a jump to the big screen meant serious technical hurdles. “Fortunately, we found some great film students here in Seattle,” he says. “They seemed to recognize the value in some of the crazy things we were trying to do.”

With SNP’s debut performance at the Historic University Theater last August, Seattle joined the short list of cities (along with New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.) where pedestrians may fall prey to a Neutrino movie crew in need of extras. Don’t panic if you see them coming your way. Just wing it.

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Originally published in Seattle magazine, April 2004

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