The Hollywood Fringe Fest, which runs June 9-26, 2016, is the place to see some of the most innovative theater from all around the world — and to discover some amazing new talent.
This is my third year covering the Fest, an assignment I particularly savor because I love the weird, and the productions here are edgy, experimental, and uncensored.
Last June, the improv group Robot Teammate and the Accidental Party (referenced hereafter as RT+AP) presented its first scripted musical, Timeheart, at the Fringe, and it was nominated for the Encore Producers Award.
Frankly, I thought that show was pretty clunky, mainly by trying to be too ambitious within the confines of the Fringe, but the company exhibited enough promise to make me interested in checking out what it’s getting up to next month.
RT+AP’s Molly Dworsky, the director and head writer of this year’s Thug Tunnel, was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the new production, and it sounds like this one could be much more “Fringe-ready.”
Here’s our interview:
Give us a bit of history about RT+AP. How did it get started?
RT+AP began four years ago when a group of friends gathered in a living room in the Valley to try out musical improv. After one hour of playing with a keyboardist friend, the founding members of the group knew they could never turn back. Soon after, RT+AP started performing in a weekly cage match at iO West, where audiences voted for whoever returns each week (we lasted 86 weeks!), and we gained a following of friends who encouraged us to keep creating.
From there, we performed all over Southern California, improvising hundreds of musicals and developing our own 30-minute and hour-long improvised musical forms.
Part of what has kept RT+AP going is the love we have for each other. We constantly surprise each other onstage and off, and we delight in the profound benefit of having a supportive and competent team working toward a united goal.
What’s the inspiration behind Thug Tunnel, premiering at the Fringe next month?
Our “thing” as a musical improv team is to make up an entire musical based on a suggestion from audience. About three years ago, we were at iO West when someone yelled out “Thug tunnel!”, and the ensuing improvised musical was so delightful and hilarious to us that we haven’t stopped talking about it since. After Fringing last year with our first scripted musical, Timeheart (which was inspired by characters we made up for a team photoshoot), we knew we wanted to come back with something equally exciting.
The scripted musical Thug Tunnel is completely inspired by the wacky improvised version. It’s about a post-apocalyptic tyrannical society living in an isolated segment of a sewer system. One girl, Petunia, gets the idea that the violent rulers of Thug Tunnel don’t have their facts straight — that after twenty years of living underground, The Surface might be ready to support human life again. So she and her lovesick sidekick, Panther, decide to make the journey through the Double Dark Tunnel to find out of they can survive above.
What about the creative process? How does the team collaborate in developing the story and songs?
Ever since we improvised Thug Tunnel, we’ve talked about what the scripted version would look like. We’ve re-watched the improvised version and brainstormed which parts had to stay and which could be swapped out for something more thematic or plot-driven or funny, but once we decided to do the Fringe, we had to kick those casual conversations into high gear.
I volunteered to lead the process, since we learned from last year that it would have helped to have one person driving the ship instead of all of us. After hearing everyone’s opinions, I fashioned an outline, wrote a draft, we read it out loud, got notes, went back to the draft, we did individual passes through the script — it was intense. It’s still intense! Many edits later, we did a table read with some of our smarty-pants friends in attendance and they gave wonderful, helpful notes about what was missing or unclear.
As for the score, our musical director Sam Johnides asks that we write lyrics along whatever vibe we’re thinking for our songs and where they fit into our story; he plunks out some melodic ideas, and together we tweak it all to create a fully-structured song. We recently added another musician to the team, Branson, who’s been writing with us, too.
We don’t have time to get too attached to anything we create, as we constantly are revising and editing, but thankfully we have a lot of experience improvising together and can count on the quality of whatever any one of us produces being pretty damn good no matter what. We’ll see how it all ends up in three weeks.
What sorts of comedic themes are addressed in Thug Tunnel? Any references to — ahem — the climate in America today?
Ah, yes. The setting of a tyrannical dystopia is definitely a vision of the future we hope to avoid. We’ve all been trying to pick our jaws up off the floor as we watch the election news unfold. We’ve also tried to thematically address some issues around the environmental crisis facing the world. We are definitely trying to get across the “don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” sentiment shared by Joni Mitchell and we may be poking a little fun at current American politics when Breakin’ Necks Becky sings about “Making Thug Tunnel Great Again.”
We hope that music, dance, and earnest silliness can be a way for our audiences to absorb some of the tougher realities of today. Our story is about how one person can change the world — but also the responsibility one takes on when they bring about great changes.
Can you tell us a bit about the performers and how they helped to create the characters they portray?
Most of the characters in the scripted show came directly from the improvised version of the show, including Dave Reynolds’ Stabby Rick, the ruler of Thug Tunnel, Kat Primeau’s Petunia, our protagonist who just wants to escape the place, and Chris Bramante as her sidekick, Panther. Miles Crosman originally played Breakin’ Necks Lou, a character that has been repurposed for Nikki Muller — who, along with me, joined the team the day before the improvised Thug Tunnel was staged and had the opportunity to watch it from the audience.
Nikki is now the brains behind Stabby Rick’s brawn, playing Breakin’ Necks Becky, and Miles plays a character he created out of plot necessity, Trash, a guide who helps Petunia and Panther on their journey. Bryan Cain, who has since retired from the team to go to grad school, played Yogurt Stu, a character I now play. We all know each other so well, and have seen and had to adapt to each other playing so many different roles throughout hundreds of improvised stories, that getting to see each other in these ridiculous Tunnel characters is almost routine. I’ve watched my teammates perform so many different fictional people that getting to live in one character for a while and flesh them out is a real luxury.
What do you find most challenging about staging a show at the Fringe? Conversely, what do you find most rewarding?
We learned from last year that we needed to scale down our production. We decided against making elaborate set pieces, since that was a Fringe and personal nightmare (especially for our team set guy, Miles, who made a time machine and desk that turned into a car) in Timeheart.
I think the most challenging part of staging a show at the Fringe is that we can’t rehearse in the space we will perform in. We work at each other’s homes. Most of us live in apartments where we can’t be very loud, space is limited, and it’s hard to get a sense of the energy of an actual theater. With that in mind, the staging of the show this year is intentionally bare bones, as we know the Fringe should and can be. The simplicity of telling a good story with basically just human bodies is hugely satisfying and can be a nice reminder of how little we really need to make a big impact.
Since the Fringe environment is very much a democracy, what other productions are on your radar as being of interest this year?
We’re excited to see what MB Stage’s Winter is Coming: A Musical Parody, as we are all big Game of Thrones fans and really loved their interactive The Video Games show at last year’s Fringe (we gave them our ‘Woulda Coulda Shoulda’ Award). They’re very playful and geeky, which we can relate to! We’re obviously big musical theater fans, so Broadway Noir, TU’s A Feast of Snacks and the immersive McCready musical are on our must-see list!
What kind of shenanigans does RT+AP get up to when not involved in the Fringe?
So many shenanigans! Besides our individual projects and passions (everyone on the team individually has a YouTube presence with original sketches, comedy songs, and parodies) we practice together frequently as well as performing our improvised musicals at indie spaces around Los Angeles on a weekly basis. We’ve begun teaching musical improv workshops, most recently in San Diego.
We also like to go up to Lake Arrowhead and perform for a weekend at the historic Tudor House, where we get to see snow in California! Individually, we’re all friends and sometimes get together to just hang out, too. It’s been a while since we had a Robo-slobo (an annual team sleepover at Miles’ parents house), so perhaps this question will inspire us to schedule the next one!
Thug Tunnel plays the Hollywood Fringe Fest at the Sacred Fools Theatre from June 9-20. Check the Fringe site for tickets and showtimes.