Go Deeper

Tonguing the Groove

Posted September 9th, 2012

Today, Bobbi Block of Tongue & Groove ran from performing in Le Grand Continental at the Art Museum over to Rittenhouse for the first night of her group’s run at the Playground at the Adrienne. After the jump, this Philly Fringe vet—she’s produced or performed in a show at every Fringe—talks about what makes Tongue & Groove: Spontaneous Theater different from other improv. You should read it for a number of reasons, not least of which is that they are forebears of the spirit of 2012 Philly Fringe nakedness, for all their promo photos, including this year’s (see below), involve no clothes. After the jump: we talk, because you only subscribe to this blog for the interviews.

Do you remember the first Fringe production you were involved with?
I’ve been doing Fringe stuff for the entire Fringe. Mostly I perform, but I also produce. The first thing I produced I think was an improv marathon. 15 years ago there were barely any improv companies in Philadelphia. I got the few that there were, and we performed one after another. We did an outdoor stage somewhere in Old City. Now there’s like a hundred improve groups in Philadelphia.

Why has the improv scene been growing in Philadelphia?
I think it’s following a national trend. Improv is a versatile, fun, interesting art form. A lot of young people are interested in it, and gets young people interested in theater. Philly’s just one of the major cities with a growing improv scene. I started off with ComedySportz, where I was the director for a long time. Comedy sportz is short-form improv, like playing games. For long-form improv, I started iwith improv group called Lunchlady Doris, which we did for 12 years. It’s really scenes and monologues that are more like mini-vignettes, rather than playing a game, where you’ll do a scene, then turn it into a sci-fi movie, then run it backwards.

Tongue and Groove is different than any other improv going on in the city. It’s what I call actor’s improv, because it can be both comic and dramatic. We take an enormous amount of info from the audience, whereas other forms get one suggestion from audience. We get lots of personal info from audience, continue to collaborate with audience to create scenes and monologues that can be emotionally grounded, that are all based on stuff from them. For this particular Fringe show we’re asking the audience to answer the question, “Who are you?” We’ll use those descriptions to create all the characters in the show. In the past, we’ve asked for secrets, we try to get really personal.

So, what’s “spontaneous theater”?
It’s my way of saying, yeah, this is improvised, but its different than any improve show you’ve seen. You can call it unscripted, spontaneous. It’s all realism; nothing absurdist or unreal that happens. That’s the fun of other improv, that it can go anywhere. But Tongue & Groove stays realistic, and tries to reflect authentic human relationships. We’re trying to take the playfulness and tension of something improvised and combine it with something that’s scripted. We take the fun of improv and the integrity of playwriting and put it together. It’s all based on audience info, unique to every show.

How did Tongue & Groove start?
We started Tongue & Groove six years ago, and we rehearsed for nine months before we performed. We created a really intimate ensemble. We’re really comfortable with kissing each other on stage, wrestling with each other, with doing both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. When we finally performed, that night, I felt like I gave birth to a baby. I gave it everything that I had, and then it’s time to let the baby go and do what they do. When I saw actors were doing it beautifully, and that it came together the way I imagined was an amazing moment.

Last year in PIFA, we performed at the Kimmel, which was amazing, we couldn’t believe we got to actually perform there. And we got a standing ovation from an audience who had never seen us before, and that’s what I’m looking for—I want people to see that improvised theater can be amazing theater. What Tongue & Groove does is really funny, but it’s also very touching, very human.

What’s different about your production this year?
Every Tongue & Groove show allows the audience to provide anonymous information. We hand out index cards at every show and ask a provocative question. This year, it’s “Who am I?” They’ll answer “I am . . .” We’ll read a bunch of them at top of show, then proceed to improvise scenes based on character descriptions we get off of those cards. They’re used for inspiration, kind of like jazz musicians—we’ll take a scene and riff off of the scene. If somebody describes themselves as a hippie grandmother who plays a flute, we won’t necessarily do that person, but will do a grandmother into music, or hippies past their prime. We use the audience to inspire our work.

Then there’s one section of our show we call character painting, take exactly what that person said then verbally paint what that character might look like. Then the group will take one actor, and say “This woman is wearing a t-shirt she bought at target for $5, and sandals she’s worn on camping each of the past 12 years, and she’s reading a self-help book about getting over divorce.” Then we’ll do the scene.

We’ll do a little section on speed dating. A perfect time you have to announce who you are to some body is when you have to date somebody. We pick cards out of the basket, and say “I’m 25 looking for a job and unemployed.” Then another person will pick a card, and then they’ll go out on a little speed date. If somebody says something on the date that doesn’t work, then we’ll reject them right away, and they’ll have to come up with something else—so they have to change who they are to get what they want.

Not every show will guarantee this, but we’re pretty sure we’ll have IMing with each other; you’re meeting somebody, but communicating only via computer. So you don’t know who the other person is. They could be a 52-year-old grandmother but they could play a 25-year-old stud. We started working on this idea of what happens if you improvise a text or computer generated conversation. We have a lot of fun sitting on stage pretending we can’t see each other.

Tongue & Groove opens tonight and also runs September 13 and 14 at 7:00 pm, September 15 at 5:00 pm, and September 19 at 7:00 pm at the Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Center City. $15.

–Nicholas Gilewicz