Think for a second about all the fantasy film reference points you can rattle off without even having to, well, think.
On the short list, David Bowie’s truly fantastic mullet in Labyrinth. “Inconceivable!” and “You killed my father. Prepare to die,” from The Princess Bride. Gollum, the disturbingly pasty, follicly challenged, jewelry-obsessed goblin from The Lord of the Rings. The NeverEnding Story, which puzzlingly spawned two sequels despite the fact that, by virtue of its name, the first installment had no ending.
The best part of all this gold-standard source material? Even if your primary obsession happens to be ’80s horror flicks, ’90s rom-coms, or anything starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, you’ve probably seen your share of films that used to be filed under “Fantasy” at Blockbuster.
And that gives you all the grounding you need for The Improv Centre (TIC)’s Tall Tales: The Quest Is Up To You!, running this summer at Granville Island.
Created by TIC cast member Mary Saunders, the show is as simple as it is impossible to stage the same way twice. Audience members offer up suggestions inspired by iconic moments in fantasy films and literature. The cast then builds a new story out of those suggestions.
“With an improv show, it’s obviously made up as we go,” Improv Centre artistic director Jalen Saip says in an interview with the Straight. “However, when we do specific formats like Tall Tales, we have a general kind of loose guideline for who we want to get into the story. For this show, we’re doing a sort of Princess Bride intro where it’s a grandparent telling a kid a story, even though we don’t necessarily know what that story will entail.
“That’s the reason the story is being told—there’s a kid who’s at home sick. We get the backstory of the kid from the audience based on their suggestions. The question is, ‘What exactly is there to be afraid of?’ And then we go off that.”
The challenge, then, becomes to create a cohesive work on the fly—think more traditional fairytale than the theatrical equivalent of a free-form jazz improvisation.
“We’re essentially trying to create a play,” Saip notes. “So we have to have certain things that we all agree on. Like, when we get into the story, we have to see our villain character kind of succeeding, and then at some point have failure, which leads to a change. So even though we don’t know what we’ll be saying, we do rehearse those kinds of main points.”
In preparation for Tall Tales: The Quest Is Up To You!, Improv Centre players are encouraged to bone up on their big-screen fantasy classics, with Saip laughingly admitting there’s no way to know if they are actually doing their homework. After that, the audience in many ways steers each show.
“It will never be the same story twice,” she says. “So what we’re working on more is, ‘Okay, how do we get a hive mind as to where we’re going? How do we get to the point where it’s not one person leading the story, but instead all of us contributing? What characters do we want to see? What tropes do we want to hit?’”
And as much as familiar favourites provide a springboard for Tall Tales: The Quest Is Up To You!, the beauty of the production is that it has an impossibly long tradition from which to draw.
“The show is about the classic story arc,” Saip says. “Not in a Western-centric kind of storytelling way—it’s not so much medieval princesses and knights, although that may be the case sometimes. It’s more the idea of ‘What do we see in fantasy in many cultures?’ ”
She continues with, “We often see trickster characters or villains who make things difficult. Or wise old sages that give us guidance. Even a Santa Claus-like character who you don’t know is Santa Claus until he reveals himself.”
That’s maybe another way of saying that, should you show up at Tall Tales: The Quest Is Up To You! with a suggestion like “Gollum opens a combination bakery/daycare centre”, chances are everyone will get the reference.
Go deep, though, with something like “Lange Wapper working the salad bar at the Keg”, and there’s no telling where that might lead once the initial confusion is over.
“Because there are so many tropes to play off, the show is so different each night,” Saip continues. “Maybe we have a Lord of the Rings nod, maybe we’re referencing The Chronicles of Narnia in the sense we’re going to a world inhabited by a villain who’s made things worse for a while. What really makes it fun is that even we don’t know what’s going to happen.” GS
Tall Tales: The Quest Is Up To You! is at the Improv Centre every Friday and Saturday until August 19.