Friday nights are often unscripted around Tacoma since more than one must-see show or concert often means venue hopping from place to place. But few nights of entertainment start with a single word.
Welcome to the world of Muh Grog Zoo, Tacoma’s resident improv troupe. The concept is complex in its simplicity. An audience member gives the improvisational actors a word — a single word, and a full one-act play comes to life from whatever jumps into the actors’ heads. Then they do it again.
Most people might know a little about improvisational theater from some high school drama class they took back in the day or the television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” where actors improvise scenes based on pre-fabricated concepts or props or characters in short skits between commercial breaks.
“We trained ourselves to be the exact opposite,” Paul Richter said. “We try to be a clean slate.”
Muh Grog Zoo takes the improv idea to the next level, for example, by crafting an in-real-time play, with a beginning, middle and end through off-the-top-of-their-heads acting. Everything flows from that single word gained from someone in the audience. There are no costumes. There are no sets. There are no props. Avoiding those traditional theatre elements allows the audience to participate in the show by having those details play out in their own minds to create their own story, much like reading a book.
“You get ownership of painting that whole picture,” actor Sam Duchin said.
And unlike the television show, Muh Grog Zoo shows are not always funny, since true comedy needs dramatic dips to ride the full range of emotions. One recent show, for example, was largely funny as it unraveled a tale about an ice creature that turned everything to ice with a touch. The deep moment came when the creature’s father walked in to embrace the beast.
“He went in for a hug, knowing he was going to die,” actor Adam Utley said. “It was funny, but it was also getting serious.”
The show ended and a woman was silently crying in her seat as the lights flicked on.
“She wasn’t crying because she hated her life but because of the emotions that were coming out at the time,” he said.
A more funny show had Duchin breast feeding Richter. Yep, one dude suckling on the nipple of another dude for the sake of making sense of the play that they are making up on the spot.
“We commit to suckling a teet every single time,” Utley said.
Muh Grog Zoo formed in 2011 and staged occasional night shows at Pierce County-area community theatres before opening a stage of its own last year at 924 Broadway. The troupe stages two, one-act plays each Friday night. Shows end with audience members being asked to sketch out a character or scene from the performance, showing the play that only they saw.
“It’s just an amazing way to relive what we just did,” actor Dylan Twiner said.
Muh Grog Zoo will perform two completely improvised one-act plays each show night. The troupe recorded a Ted Talks segment called “Shared stories create a community” that explains the experience and the purpose of improv. Muh Grog Zoo shows start at 9 p.m. Fridays at 924 Broadway, Tacoma. The next season, Phase 4, runs February 19 to April 8. Tickets are $8 or $10 for two and available online or at the door on a first-come, first-serve basis. Season passes are also available for $100, which covers every performance in 2016.