North Side story
Traditional rivals actors and improvisers mix in Gravid Water
While enrolled in acting classes at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York, Stephen Ruddy came to what could have been a disheartening realization. Many of the lessons he was learning—don’t overthink scenes, listen closely and react honestly—were practically the same as what he’d been told during improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.
Rather than be annoyed at ponying up to hear the same thing twice, though, the 34-year-old actor had a more generous thought: What if freewheeling improvisation and serious theatrical acting could be combined?
“If you put the two together onstage, it wouldn’t be as incongruous as you think,” he says. “They’re both trying to do the same thing.”
So Ruddy—whose show, Gravid Water, comes to the I.O. Del Close Theater for a six-week run beginning Monday 13—came up with the idea of using two-person scripted scenes as the basis for a performance, but allowing only one of the players to know the written lines. An actor would prepare his or her portion of the scene, committing the lines to memory and sticking to the script, while an improviser—with no prior knowledge of the piece—would fill in the blanks. The job of the actor, then, would be to change the tone and feel of the lines to fit what the improviser was saying, without modifying the actual words.
Ruddy pitched the concept to the producers at the Brooklyn experimental-arts space Galapagos in 2004. He was a little unprepared when they called back and said they were interested—and asked him for the show’s name. He had just finished reading Flann O’Brien’s The Hard Life, in which a con man sells a medicine for rheumatoid arthritis called gravid water. Ruddy liked the term (“It’s sort of catchy and mysterious,” he says), so despite the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the show, he snagged it for a title.
Gravid Water ran for about a year at Galapagos and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, attracting distinguished Off-Broadway actors, and some of New York’s improv heavyweights, including members of renowned troupes Mother and The Swarm.
Many of the improvisers had originally trained in Chicago, and one, Christina Gausas, introduced Ruddy to Charna Halpern, the owner of I.O. in Wrigleyville. Ruddy had been considering bringing the show to Chicago, and Halpern had room on her schedule, so the timing was perfect.
The show has become popular with both improvisers and actors because it’s something new.
“For improvisers, it’s fun for them to work against these pros,” he says. “It gives them very meaty material. And every actor is trying to deliver an in-the-moment performance, trying to not plan out the scene and really walk on the edge.”
No wonder, then, that Halpern was able to get commitments from actors such as Natalie West, Amy Morton, David Pasquesi and Matt DeCaro, along with improvisers such as TJ Jagodowski, Peter Grosz and Joe Bill.
Pasquesi, a stage and film actor who’s also half of the much-admired improv duo TJ & Dave, will do double duty as both improviser and actor (“I’m not going to play against myself, though,” he says). He’s never seen the show, but he’s excited about the possibilities.
“We’ve got some good actors up there—I think that’s what’s going to make it interesting,” Pasquesi says. “Hopefully, there might be times you’re not sure who’s on book and who’s improvising.”
And if all goes well, the performances should achieve the lofty goal of all long-form improvisation: to uncover something beyond one-liners and sitcom-style jokes. Like during the New York run, when the performers reimagined a scene from The Children’s Hour, a play by Lillian Hellman. As written, the scene involved a woman expressing unrequited love for her fellow female schoolteacher.
“But in our take, the woman was receptive to her love. What was tragedy became a tender and playful love scene,” Ruddy says. “These scenes tend to be funny, because improvisers are funny, but there’s no pressure to make it funny.”
Gravid Water gets heavy every week at I.O.’s Del Close Theater, starting Monday 13.