“Quick! We need a word. Any word,” says Travis Charles Ploeger, director and accompanist for iMusical, an improv ensemble out of Washington Improv Theater. He’s standing in a black box theater, overlooking a group of audience members who have no idea what they’re in for. And, neither does the cast. Someone yells out “Graveyard.” Ploeger says, “Great! Now, relax and enjoy our improvised musical that starts off in a graveyard.” He exits stage left over to his keyboard, the lights dim, and the never before heard overture begins.
For musical theater lovers, this likely sounds hazardous. Making up a musical on the spot? But what about rehearsal time? Costumes? Set? Lights? Time-tested playbooks? But for anyone involved in the world of improv, this is par for the course. iMusical is one of the nation’s best-known ensembles around the country that improvises every note, lyric, and scene on the spot in front of a live audience. All they need to get started is an audience suggestion for inspiration. Where they end up is anyone’s guess. After all, that’s the beauty of an improvised musical.
But this cast is well practiced as one of the most established, long-lasting ensembles presented by Washington Improv Theater, a 20-year-old institution itself. Behind the magic is Ploeger, former longtime member of New York’s renowned Chicago City Limits, who composes the music spontaneously in a give-and-take with his cast. Improvised musicals seem to be the perfect match for his two passions. Ploeger moved to Washington, DC from New York City with the specific goal to create something that would blend the immediacy of comedic, long-form improv with the empathy of modern musical theater, without sacrificing one for the other. “I love watching an audience be surprised when they actually care about the characters and stories our cast brings to life. They thought they were coming to see a “comedy show,” but when the house lights come on at the end, they are applauding a piece of dramatic (and, comedic) musical theater… never to be seen again.”
iMusical Cast member and Washington Improv Theater Artistic/Executive Director, Mark Chalfant, has directed over 20 ensemble projects during his career with Washington Improv Theater. He finds the collaboration between the players one of the most rewarding things about the improvised musical process. “Sharing a song and finding a rhyme with your scene partner’s line, or discovering something with them together that propels the song forward – it’s uniquely exhilarating because the audience is sharing that discovery,” says Chalfant.
Despite the challenge, iMusical seems to consistently deliver. Even if there is a moment of panic, a tinge of awkward silence, or a stutter of words, it’s part of the experience as a whole.
You can see for yourself at WIT Presents: Summer Escape. Along with the debut of Washington Improv Theater’s newest project, Heavy Rotation, as well as over 30 other ensembles, iMusical will present Apocalypse How?, their cathartic release to the seemingly doomsday climate we are currently living in. The audience will decide what the world-ending event will be and the group will see where it takes them. Undoubtedly, to the end.