Improv requires a lot of thinking on your feet, but imagine also rhyming and singing. The L.A.-based improve troupe Robot Teammate does this regularly as they improvise new musical comedy shows. Their latest endeavor, a scripted show called TURBULENCE!, makes its New York City debut this weekend as part of the SoHo Playhouse Fringe Encore series. The musical, adapted from one of their improvs, previously won a slew of awards at the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival, including Best Musical. TURBULENCE! takes place during the Intergalympics of 4242, when rival planets Earth and Mars must compete in a high-speed, high-stakes race through space. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke with Robot Teammate member Chris Bramante about turning improvised musicals into scripted musicals, what musical theater adds to the improv show, and some crazy musical theater improv ideas.
Culturadar: Congratulations on your NYC debut! After performing for many years in LA, what most excites you about performing for New York audiences?
Chris Bramante: Since our troupe assembled, Robot Teammate has been performing musical theater in a city built for movies and television. It's always been a blast, but has left us wondering what it might be like to actually put up one of our shows in New York, the musical theater hub of the planet. Beyond touring Broadway productions at the Pantages and community theaters putting up early 20th Century classic musicals, we haven’t found LA to be particularly bustling with musical theater outside of our Fringe community. In recent years, we’ve been enlivened by what appears to be a mainstream resurgence of the musical. I’m curious and excited to learn from NYC audiences and theater communities about what new frontiers are being explored by indie theater creators. The cherry on top of the NYC travel is that a handful of our members, myself included, are from the East Coast and mostly everyone in the cast has friends and family in the region. We can’t wait to show them our little sports adventure in space.
CR: You probably don't want to give too much away about the show, but is there a certain song or moment you are looking forward to performing?
CB: I’m obsessed with the music in this show. Our band and composers, who also double as actors in their portrayal of our rivals the Martians, always create infectious tunes for our musicals, and this is their best work to date. It makes our jobs as lyricists and vocalists all the more inspiring. As for specific numbers, I would cite “Power’s Low” as a track to look out for. You’ll have to see the show to see why it stands out from the rest of the pack.
CR: This musical started as one of your improvised musicals. How do you decide which of your improvised musicals to turn into a scripted musical?
CB: As a troupe that has performed hundreds of improvised musicals, there are a handful that are uniquely singed into our minds. The songs, the characters, the bits, they just won't leave our thoughts and bring us to tears when we think back on them. Those are the shows we decide to adapt.
CR: What is that process like?
CB: The process of adapting the musicals includes the selection of a head writer. For TURBULENCE!, our head writer is Miles Crosman who also portrays Captain David Galaxy. It's up to the head writer to decide how they want to run their writers room. After a long process of outlining, drafting and redrafting, we all comb over the script together in a room and have every possible discussion of every possible outcome, ultimately finding compromise on what we believe will tell the clearest, most entertaining and meaningful tale. It's a bit of an insane process to have five writers who are also the actors creating a story together in a room. We battle through all the disagreements to achieve something that we can all proudly get behind. Each musical writing process is different with the only consistency being that everything always begins with improv in some form.
CR: When did you start creating scripted musicals?
CB: The act of writing together didn’t occur to us until we riffed on characters and backstories during a 1960s sci-fi themed photoshoot. It was there that we created the idea for TIMEHEART, which became our first scripted musical. TIMEHEART was never a show we improvised but it was the first story we ever attempted to put to paper. After creating an outline, we would videotape ourselves improvising the scenes off of the outline and then create scripted scenes from there. After TIMEHEART was a joyful success, we knew that we needed to create more and became fixated on revisiting one of our favorite improvised musicals that we ever performed, a dystopian sewer adventure called THUG TUNNEL. We were so thrilled with the results of adapting a story we had already created together via improv that we wanted to continue this improv-to-script writing method. For Hollywood Fringe 2017, we underwent a long process of pitching and brainstorming, eventually landing on TURBULENCE!, a story that we first improvised at the Impro Studio Theater in 2016.
CR: How did this group start?
CB: Robot Teammate was independently assembled from a conglomeration of college friends, improv friends, and subsequent auditions. Many members have come and gone since the creation of the project. We used to perform for the tiniest of crowds at the Bang Theater on Fairfax before it was shut down and turned into a coffee shop. Our dynamic truly solidified when we set a world record in 2014 for most consecutive cage match wins after 86 weeks of competition at iO West. Since then we’ve played at all the theaters around LA and have been on the road, teaching and performing regionally, including a "Best in Fest" run at the San Diego Improv Festival 2016 and a two year stint performing livestream short form improv on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel.
CR: Why do you think musicals lend themselves well to the improvised form?
CB: Music is truth. When your characters can no longer bear to keep their truth bottled, they must burst into song. There’s nothing more electrifying than uniting artistically in the moment with the musicians and the improvisers to create a beautiful song live on stage. We're all actors and writers but the most important thing is that we've all got rock n' roll in our veins. We can't not spend our days singing our minds into the world and making each other laugh until we collapse.
CR: What is the craziest musical idea you guys have ever attempted?
CB: On the birthday of our music director/composer Sam Johnides, we surprised him at one of his other shows by coming out on stage. He didn’t expect us to be there, and Robot Teammate promptly went on to improvise the life story of Sam in front of him while he was very distracted on the keys. Either that or the time we lived in a dimension composed entirely of cheese.
TURBULENCE! plays the SoHo Playhouse select dates and times Friday, October 13th through Sunday, October 22nd.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest) and Days of Rage, and her play The Rapture of our Teeth (a parody of Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth) is published on Indie Theater Now. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also writes about theater for Women and Hollywood and The Huffington Post.