In improv theatre, each performance is, naturally, different. A scripted play, however, has got to be the same or damn near the same night after night, right?
In the case of 52 Pick-Up, a play by TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi, the randomizing gimmick is a deck of cards. On each card is written a scene title. The two actors, as the title implies, throw the deck in the air. Over the next hour, the story unravels in whatever order the actors pick up the cards. It’s hard enough memorizing lines in sequential order.
The odds of any two performances being the same are one in… A lot.
“It’s kind of a hard show to play,” says Dan Willows, who stars with Sarah Andrina Brown in the upcoming Twenty Something Theatre production at the Havana Theatre. “You have that chronological character change and now you’re trying to play that change but in different moments, and trying to play off what was said already and what the audience knows as opposed to what is going to come and they haven’t seen yet. It is kinda neat to not think of it in any chronological order, that it could come at any card at a time. Any scene could happen and you have to be ready to go with it and be in the right spot.”
While there’s no improvisation in it, Willows’s improv training comes in handy. After arriving in Vancouver from Saskatchewan in 2011, Willows took up with Instant Theatre, which performs at the Havana on Sunday nights. He’s also in Sin Peaks, the improvised soap opera at the Railway Club every Wednesday night (except, of course, during the run of 52 Pick-Up).
Sitting at a Main Street café between classes at Langara, Willows says of the training, “It definitely is helpful—just being able to roll with something and stay in a moment.”
Director Brian Cochrane, whom Willows first met in Saskatchewan, put the cards in the order that made most sense for him to give the actors a starting point. Throughout the rehearsal period, which started on October 26, Willows and Brown have played it in everything but that order. And what Willows has found is that it’s all good. “It’s always a compelling story no matter what the order,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s engaging. It’s kind of nice that every moment can exist on its own.”
Willows grew up an air-force brat, moving from Halifax to Germany to Ottawa to Moose Jaw to Regina. At 6 foot 3 and 300 pounds, he looks like he just stepped off the combine. He claims to be a big-city boy at heart. But helpful. “So many people were like, ‘Oh, can you come help with harvest?’ ” he says. “I’ve never done it, but yeah, I’ll be there for sure.”
While he does standup and sketch in addition to improv, acting is his first love. He got his degree in theatre performance from the University of Regina and landed parts in the holy trinity of Saskatchewan TV: Corner Gas, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and InSecurity. And then the province lost its film-tax credits. Hello, Vancouver! Now he goes out on auditions for bodyguards, policemen, and security guards because film and television love typecasting. “It’s fun to see all the big guys in the city in one room,” he says with a laugh.
He enrolled at Langara before getting the part in 52 Pick-Up, so things are a little hectic. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is just like university was for me,” he says, “taking three classes and doing a play at the same time. It’s right in my wheelhouse. I did it for four years.”
52 Pick-Up runs at the Havana from Thursday (November 19) to November 29.