Tim Hillman, the founder of Unexpected Company, feels about his new troupeís style of improv the way the born-again feel about their religion.
He doesnít have a pamphlet to thrust at you, but they do have a Web site. (Donít forget the hyphen in unexpected-company.com, or youíll end up in Iowa.)
"After thirtysomething years of doing theater, this has become my reason for doing it," he says.
Hillman, 46, is twice as old as any of the 14 actors who take turns performing Sunday nights at the Warwick Museum of Art. Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and an impresarioís nerve, he comes across like a slimmed-down Orson Welles doing Falstaff. But now, having worked up a sweat being put on the spot again and again that evening, heíd probably rather be hoisting post-performance flagons of ale with his band of young extroverts.
"Unexpected started in my mind and in reality in Los Angeles going back about 17 years, when Iíd become frustrated with the short-scene sketch style improv that abounded in Los Angeles," he explains. Hillman was a member of a company called the LA Connection for more than a year, and then started up a short-lived improv company in a space the Church of Scientology let them use. No less than Lisa Kudrow and Conan OíBrien were in that troupe ó the original Unexpected Company. Other improv and acting students he has taught include Matthew Perry and Sara Gilbert.
After Hillman gets through with them, young actors tend to be interested in the long forms of improvisational comedy more than the finger-popping short stuff, meat-and-potatoes more than improv Chinese takeout. "It was a seamless form of improvisation that didnít involve going to the audience all the time and saying, ĎFeed me information,í " he says.
Hillman fled the mad LA scene with his actress wife Erin Russell when they started raising children. He had a Ph.D. in education from LaSalle University, so he went off to teach theater at Phillips-Andover in Massachusetts and in Tennessee, where he set up an improv company. Two years ago he and his family settled in Rhode Island, where he was raised. Hillmanís day job is as chairman of the department of computer science at Prout School in Wakefield.
His latest troupe is six months old and, to hear him tell it, he has designs on 60 years.
The enthusiasm is all thanks to Harold. Or should I say Morris? There are nearly as many variations on the Harold as there are comedy troupes. The original Chicago version involves linking scenes, united by a theme, with improv group games for variety.
This latest incarnation of Unexpected Company started out doing the Harold in its two-month rehearsal period, getting ready to perform publicly in March. Stuck in a Harold that wasnít going anywhere, upon Hillmanís suggestion company member Brian Perry broke into an impromptu interior monologue that closed one scene and provided fertile ground for the next scene to grow.
"I saw what was happening and said, ĎIím not going to stop this,í " Hillman recalls. "The worst that I could have done was to stop it from happening, because it went flying."
What they soon named the Morris was born. Morris is a little freerer than Harold, who likes the security of a strict form.
"Itís great," says Perry, the spike-haired guy sitting next to Hillman. "In the short form, all you can really get out of it is easy jokes. In this you can do something that makes sense and has a story. Itís so much fun."
On the other side of Hillman, recent URI grad Tom Reedy talks about how it is to lose yourself in a long improv thatís cruising along on all cylinders. "I used to be an athlete in high-school ó you knew when you were in the zone," he says. "When youíre up on stage and everything is clicking, everything youíre saying is getting a reaction and the person youíre looking at is reacting right back with you ó itís just awesome, really, when that happens."
"You donít feel like itís an effort anymore," Brian adds.
"Itís like really good sex," Hillman says. "I guess thatís why everybody smokes."
Brian turns to him. "And thatís why I took that nap in the middle of the set."
Apparently, they havenít punched out yet.
But thatís to be expected if you listen to Hillman, who makes a case that an actor doing improv isnít all that different from what youíre going to do after you put down this paper.
"Hereís how I explain it to actors. If you pick up the phone to call a girl, you have planned out what youíre going to say," he begins. "The instant she picks up the phone, everything you had planned goes right out the freaking window . . . and immediately, youíre improvising.
"Every single person on the face of this planet does this all day long," Hillman points out.
If he and his tireless company have their way, an increasing number of people in Rhode Island, at least, will enjoy watching it happen in the evenings, too.
Issue Date: July 11 - 17, 2003
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