Thursday, August 19, 2004

A smart-aleck diner in Adams Morgan tried to disrupt a scene being shot recently by DC Wit’s Neutrino Video Project, the improv-on-the-go movie series now playing at the District of Columbia Arts Center.

Had the interloper tried his shenanigans back in February, when the show took its first tentative steps, the results might have been calamitous, says DC Wit cast member Tyler Korba. Now, the group’s got enough film under its belt to just roll with the punches.

Never let it be said that improv players stay flat-footed for long.

The Neutrino Video Project, which was begun in 1999 by a New York-based improv group, is now part of the DC Wit’s repertoire. The shows go on at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights through Sept. 11.

If improv is comedy without a safety net, than video improv is comedy without a postproduction suite.

DC Wit members first stepped before the cameras last year as part of an improv festival held in Seattle. They performed with fellow improv comics from Chicago and Seattle and decided they wanted to bring the concept back home with them.

Watching a recent Saturday night performance, it seemed like these insta-movies are now second nature to cast and crew.

Two DC Wit players draw a few random items from the crowd and distribute them to three teams of two performers. The players then dash away into the heart of Adams Morgan with digital videotape cameramen in tow.

Once the teams shoot their first scenes, they rush them back into the theater, where they’re shown as is. (The camera operators can perform modest cuts and edits while shooting the film.)

By the time that short segment concludes, a tape shot by one of the other two teams is ready for viewing. And so it goes until the final scene, which tries to tie the three story lines together.

Make sense? It does in person, even if not every night is an improv home run.

The show is “simply another way to tell a story,” Mr. Korba says. “It’s very much like any other improv show. We don’t know where we’re going until we get there.”

It helps that the troupe worked the kinks out during the initial February run. “Now, we’ve gotten more comfortable with the form,” Mr. Korba says.

It wasn’t always so easy.

The group’s performers took time getting used to playing to the camera and not the live audience. “You can’t be completely focused on your scene partner,” as with traditional improv work, Mr. Korba explains.

One element out of the group’s control is the general public, the unwitting actors in these video shoots. “I was expecting the worst — ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ ” he says. His fears were mostly for naught. “People were overly courteous when they saw a camera.”

The first night out did give them pause, however. The improv actors staged a fight scene, and an inebriated local stepped in and quickly got into the act. “That was the closest thing to chaos we’ve seen,” he says.

A recent performance featured mostly sound acting and a surprising amount of poignancy between the laughs. The finished films don’t look as polished as more traditionally shot fare, but they also unspool smoothly enough so the viewer can concentrate on the drama, not the technique.

And anyone who has sat through limp comedies such as “Little Black Book” and “White Chicks” will find far more chuckles here.

Mark Chalfant, the group’s artistic director and fellow performer, had a few technical concerns about adapting the Neutrino project. He wondered if the group possessed enough camera operators to make the films look polished enough. A few of the DC Wit members work in film on their day jobs, which made the transition fairly easy.

The actors have had it a bit harder.

“Improvisers are used to stage work,” Mr. Chalfant says, not working in tandem with a camera operator who may have a shot in mind that’s the complete opposite of what he or she wants to do in the scene.

“You don’t understand in the moment what he could be doing,” he says. “That camera person could be creating a joke … or making your character look silly.”

The mini-films also force performers to economize their movements.

“On stage, it’s often about using your entire body,” he says. “You can play big, in a way. If you play big in Neutrino you look like an insane person. Subtle moves can tell big parts of a story.”

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