Review: The Life Game by Truth Be Told Theatre
When most hear the words ‘theatre’ and ‘improvisation’ they default to thinking about theatresports- short games in the style of Whose Line is it Anyways? that have an end goal of humour. There is nothing wrong with this style, but its prominence does cast a shadow over other forms that are equally worthy. The Life Game, developed by improvisation master teacher Keith Johnstone, is a work of long form improv that is particularly deserving of attention. Using a carefully crafted set of rules and no safety net, it uses trust and skill to spin an intimate, compelling, and honest evening of theatre.
Each performance of The Life Game features a single special guest whose life story forms the basis for the evening’s improvisation (on opening night it was luminary actress and director Nicola Cavendish). This individual sits on a couch downstage left with a host who asks questions that shed on the guest’s life and prompt improvised re-enactments.
These re-enactments are performed by a small company of improvisers (five on opening); one plays the guest, the rest become significant people from their life. Two directors also sit in the front row of the audience, guiding the action by posing questions and requesting scenes.
The questions begin gently, asking whether the guest was a shy or outgoing child, whether they rushed quickly through the world or dawdled, and so on. The improviser then tries speaking a few sentences as the childhood version of the guest, asking for feedback on whether they are getting it right.
This process of checking-in to ensure authenticity is one that occurs time and again over the course of the evening, and is the most outward sign of the deep respect held for the show’s guests. It soon becomes apparent that in The Life Game, entertainment is secondary to creating a truthful, meaningful representation of an individual’s life.
This soon becomes very important, as questions venture from safe childhood recollections into more probing terrain. The full spectrum of human experience is explored, with questions about joy, sexuality, spirituality, and mortality all being fair game (though the guest can always decline to answer a question). The aforementioned respect creates a safe, trusting environment where the guest can answer honestly without fear of judgement or misrepresentation.
Highlights of the opening night included Bruce Horak’s hilarious turns as an angel, poodle, and earnest admirer, Denise Jones’ warm-hearted portrayal of the guest, and Cavendish herself, who displayed enormous amounts of bravery, integrity, and honesty in telling her story, and even took to the stage and became involved in its telling.
To say any more about the opening night however, would be to undermine what is so special about live improvisation. What happened yesterday evening- and what happens with every iteration of The Life Game– is a singular occurrence; an intimate two hours of laughter and tears that will never happen again. It represents the very best of what live improvisation can be: a collective, fleeting experience that a fortunate group can share and carry with them when it is over.
The Life Game runs nightly until April 14 at Studio 1398 on Granville Island.
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