It all started in May of 2007. For our final show of the season, Geva Comedy Improv was performing an improvised Western and GCI alum Josh Rice happened to be in town, so we invited him to perform with us as an “everybody else” character (more on that later). The night of the show, the cast was hanging out in the green room and Josh unexpectedly produced several small plastic bags filled with stage blood. Josh’s last minute idea was simple: anytime an improviser got shot, he would run up behind them onstage and squeeze the “blood squib” until it burst. Awesome – the cast was giddy with excitement.
Flash forward to the final moments of the performance – the stage was set for a high-noon showdown between the good, the bad and….well, everybody else onstage. The clock struck noon, shots rang out, and with a loud pop, a crimson explosion of stage blood catapulted across the theater. It was unexpected. It was graphic. It was gratuitous. It was SPECTACULAR. The audience erupted, and the cast of GCI would never be the same. We had tasted blood and the blood was good.
The following October, GCI would revisit those glorious blood-filled final moments of our Cowboy Epic for a full length 90 minute bloodbath on the Fielding stage, papered from floor to ceiling in construction grade plastic sheeting (a kill room Dexter would kill for). It was graphic. It was gratuitous. It was spectacular. On that autumn evening, from those sticky walls dripping wet with viscous red, an annual tradition was born – GCI’s Improvised Slasher.
The Slasher Film Genre: Putting the “YOU” in Murder
The Slasher is a subgenre of horror films that tends to follow a fairly standard and predictable formula: a masked lunatic is systematically stalking a group of people (typically adolescents) who are then murdered one by one (typically in grotesque and brutal ways) until only one victim remains (typically a wholesome, virginal girl). The last would-be victim then rises above the traumatic experience like a phoenix from the ashes of her deceased friends and musters the courage to face the killer to beat him at his own murderous game of cat and mouse. The nightmare is over, the killer is vanquished and the “Final Girl” (a term originally coined by Carol Clover in “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film“), sees the dawn break with a newly found strength and a high likelihood of years of expensive therapy. American Suburbia is safe at last…until the sequel.
Slashers are fun because the audience knows WHAT is going to happen, but they don’t know WHEN. Our hearts beat in anticipation of when the axe will drop, our adrenaline surges as we cast ourselves in the action, yelling at the top of our lungs to a doomed onscreen companion – FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LOOK BEHIND YOU! HOW CAN THESE KIDS BE SO STUPID!? We get to see the victims through the point of view of the killer and relish in the guilty pleasure of seeing the arrogant jock get his comeuppance for years of casual bullying – all the while safe in the comfort of our cushioned seats and carbonated beverages. We get to kill and be killed without fear of actually getting gutted ourselves or being locked behind bars for committing these atrocities (no matter how satisfying it is to see the annoying neighbor flayed on their stupid fence in an eternal monument to the ongoing property line dispute).
We get to test our own mettle and cunning vicariously and most importantly, we get to SURVIVE. We get to rise up alongside the final girl against insurmountable odds, stalk the stalker and deliver a heaping helping of backyard American justice to send the bad dude back to Hell. Take that jerk-face. You killed my friends and I’m going to avenge their deaths by sending you to yours, but not before blurting out some pun-filled snarky quip that definitively proves my particular brand of bad-assery. There’s redemption in survival and a much needed catharsis in being the hero, and EVERYBODY wants to be the hero. The Slasher gives license to the audience to murder, to run, to hide, to feel firsthand the terror of mortality, the slippery slope of vengeance and the blissful relief of a new dawn as the embodiment of the mighty conquering hero – And all of that’s pretty damn fun for not ever having to leave your couch.
Doing our Bloodwork: Adapting the Slasher from Screen to Stage
There are a number of challenges in transposing any film genre to the live stage, but improvising a Slasher has its own particular set of difficulties. We begin by watching as many Slasher films that we can get our red, sticky little hands on (Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.) to get a solid feel for the different character tropes and classic story arcs.
The cast brainstorms various locations that are conducive to the genre and then prepares some characters and costumes based upon the setting and basic Slasher character tropes (Good Girl, Bad Girl, Good Boy, Bad Boy, Authority Figure etc). A common casting element in GCI’s long-form improvised narratives is the “everybody else” or “utility” character – one or two improvisers tasked with playing the roles of literally everyone else who might be in the story. Over the course of the performance, they may play anywhere from 5-10 different and distinct characters, and in the Slasher genre, die just as many deaths.
The script and plot of the show are entirely improvised based upon suggestions from the audience solicited by a “director” seated just offstage. The role of the director is critical in GCI’s onstage version of the Slasher. The director functions as an interface between audience and actors, shaping the story in real time with audience input and actor interpretation. Although the director has full authority over the action onstage (including the power to rewind and erase the previous scene and reboot the story from any point), the improvisers ultimately have control over their own performance and can steer the story in whatever way they see fit. The result is an equal collaboration between director, audience, and improviser to create a (hopefully) cogent and entertaining story arc rife with campy comedy and dripping with stage blood.
Arguably, the most important function of the director is not to write the story through onstage direction (the GCI cast is pretty darn adept at making up narratives on the fly), but to regulate the pace of the show (read: speed and frequency of murders) and to keep the identity of the killer a secret for as long as possible. One of the most exciting elements of the Slasher genre is the ongoing speculation and mystery of who-done-it. Who is the maniac behind the mask? To maintain that air of mystery and uncertainty of our improvised onstage version, at the start of the show the director has the cast pick knives from a butcher block to determine who the killer will be (one of the knives is secretly marked – known only to the director). Up until that point, any member of the cast could get randomly, well…cast, as the villain of the story, which makes for an incredibly fun twist for the improvisers and audience alike. The killer’s identity is concealed in a full body costume while performing their duties, while the rest of the improvisers and the director do their best to cast suspicion on themselves and each other in an effort to keep the audience guessing until the final moments of the show when the Slasher’s identity is finally revealed.
It’s like watching a live-action version of a hilarious, campy, choose your own adventure horror film with a throwback tribute to William Castle’s movie theater marketing gimmicks of the 1950’s – a chance that you may get splattered with stage blood if you’re seated close to the stage. (The cast does our best to avoid this but in the throes of merciless massacre physics isn’t always on our side…)
Think you’ve got what it takes to survive? Come join us for a Bloody good time this Halloween – or stay at home, lock your doors, and run upstairs to hide – either way you’ll probably be safe…until the sequel.
GCI’s Halloween Slasher performances are on Geva’s Fielding stage October 21st & 22nd at 8:30pm.
Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in person at the Geva Box office or via phone by calling 232-GEVA. Advance purchase is highly recommended. For more info check out Geva Comedy Improv’s Website
**This show contains Strong Language, Adult Content, and Improvised Violence. Patrons seated close to the stage may get splattered with stage blood. Recommended for ages 18+**