OOPS to tell the story of Chautauqua with site-specific performance

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Actors in the Original Outdoor Projects (OOPS) group enact an improv scene from “Titanic” as an exercise for their rehearsal Wednesday. The group’s performance at 10 p.m. tonight will be entirely improvised.

To Danielle Skraastad, improvisation is the highest form of living exchange.

Dancing, an intriguing conversation or a true connection with a loved one allows a person to access a place where the individual is lost and becomes a larger part of a free exchange.

Skraastad teaches theater games at New York University and is directing this season’s Original Outdoor Project, abbreviated OOPS, a part of Chautauqua Theater Company’s additional programming.

The site-driven performance piece will unfold only once, at 10 p.m. tonight, starting at the Burgeson Nature Classroom, a location from which the performance is likely to progress.

“Improvisation on that level … it’s really a sharp increase in the level of complexity,” Skraastad said. “If you can hit that level, where no one knows what they’re doing but anyone looking at it would think that those people had worked together for years, that they love each other, that they care about each other … and really it is a bunch of people who may have just met.”

Hitting that level was exactly what happened in a recent rehearsal for the project.

During an improvisational game called “Expert,” conservatory members Emma Duncan  and Marianne Rendon discussed their clairvoyant powers to converse without words and a book they recently published on their ability.

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Actors in the Original Outdoor Project (OOPS) group improvise makeshift character roles.

The other actors in the production, Kate Abbruzzese, Susana Batres, Kate Eastman and Greg Fallick asked questions of the authors, inquiring as to when they first discovered their capabilities and whether the skill is genetic. To an outsider, the conversation appeared like a casual discussion of a bizarre talent. But for the actors in on the game, the improvisational, fictional scene evolved with each sentence.

“You’re listening at such a heightened level that you can lock into this thing,” Skraastad said. “There’s no fixed leader, there’s no fixed follower, nobody’s greedy about taking space, you really become a part in a bigger event.”

The OOPS cast began rehearsing for the production last Tuesday, June 24, when they walked Chautauqua Institution’s grounds to gain inspiration and scope locations where the performance might take place. After settling on the Burgeson Nature Classroom as a starting point, the group began developing a concept heavily driven by the surroundings at the Institution, and entirely built off ideas that sprung from improvisational games.

“We don’t know what it is yet, but I think we can say it’s a kind of ghost story,” Eastman said. “The fact that it’s outside and at night, we all had the sense that we needed to capitalize on that.”

The actors said the Native American and Victorian history of the grounds provided fodder for brainstorming.

What is left to the unknown is part of what makes OOPS interesting. Focused on the process of crafting an original piece, actors are given space within the planned program to continue improvising.

“Within it the actors are free, just like a jazz quartet. You know what song you’re doing, you know when everyone’s turn is, but within that there’s a lot of playfulness and inspiration, which is really what improvisation strives for,” Skraastad said.

Such freedom can be unnerving, but it’s all part of the beauty of improvisation.

“It’s always very terrifying developing a new piece, especially when it comes out of nothing,” Fallick said. “You really have to trust everyone around you.”

OOPS became a part of CTC’s programming as a concept about nine years ago, when games teacher Karl Kenzler and mask teacher Aole Miller both worked on site-specific performances with conservatory actors. Since then, the performance has evolved, only gaining its OOPS title last year.

CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch sees the program as an imperative aspect of the company’s programming, as it speaks to the Chautauqua audience in an unexpected way apart from main stage productions.

“In the theater, there are many, many different worlds that you can create, but it will have the frame of an audience sits one place and the action of the play is in a proscenium theater,” Benesch said. “It’s really important to me to break out of that mold.”

The improvisational nature of OOPS diverges markedly from the traditional, script-based theater for both audience and actors, offering what Benesch calls a “full-service theater experience.”

As for what to expect tonight, it’s difficult to say, as the actors continue to develop the production even through its realization.

“It’ll probably be a blend of singing, dance, water play, acrobatics … delightfully told by the best new theater artists of our time, celebrating Chautauqua and its residents past and future,” Skraastad said. “The idea we’re playing with is, why can we remember the past and not the future? And also, can we? What do the ghosts have to tell us?”