Love(r)´s labour ´s never lost

Stage performance of the English Lovers

Life is for lovers, isn´t it? I´m in love. Have been for a long time – with the English Lovers! This troupe of brilliant improvisers with nigh Shakespearean linguistic smarts has been performing in Vienna a good two decades. When I go to see a performance by the English Lovers, it is like meeting old friends. Just seeing Jim Libby, Michael Smulik and Bronwynn Mertz-Penzinger walk onto the KultursommerWien stage in Penzing last Thursday made me happy – and that was before the show even began.

What started out as a reading group that performed staged readings at the Theater Drachengasse Bar&Co. in 1997 officially became The English Lovers in 2002, a few years after their first comedy and impro night, aptly titled A Load of Nonsense, in January 1999. Jim Libby, one of the troupe´s members has been there from the start, and I am thrilled that he agreed to give me an interview (we talked on that popular video chat platform). So this time, a somewhat different format for ViennaCultgram, we present insights into the workings of the English Lovers.

Stage performance of the English Lovers
Jim Libby doing a hilarious impersonation of opera show host Marcel Pravy, with English Lover actors Bronwynn Mertz-Penzinger and Michael Smulich, accompanied on the guitar by Oscar, during the KulturSommerWien festival.

A conversation with Jim Libby about the Lovers and the human condition

How did the team actually form?

Back in 1997 there was a wonderful actress, Barbara Spitz, who got the gig at the Drachengasse to do a late night show, and so she called upon a bunch of English-speaking performers that were in the city at the time. Back then we weren´t exactly the constellation we are today. I had just moved to the city, and they were all meeting at a buddy of mine´s house, and I had gone over that day to use his printer, and he invited me to come read with them. And so our first performance was on 31st October, when we did those readings at Drachengasse and the Funkhaus for Blue Danube Radio. And later some folks went away, some came back, but we´ve been the current constellation for about twenty years. Except now we have a new member, Sophie Kozeluh, the daughter of Dennis. We are starting our 25th season!

And from these beginnings how did you become the English Lovers?

Originally we started improvising because we thought that would be our process to create text-based theatre, our own shows, but then the process of improvising just became that much more fascinating. Over the years we have done some text-based theatre too. And so, that´s how we started, we are this disparate group of folks from all over the globe sharing a language that nobody really shared, not sharing a culture, we were all strangers in this strange land, but, what came out of that was that it forced us to make our art be reflective of the human condition, that´s where we took our inspiration, because we didn´t have any common cultural clichés to draw upon, and also our immigrant experience of Vienna was very unique. I like that.

So who is the leader of the group?

We are a hierarchy-less collective, because we lead the leader. But, it´s like a band in some ways, and so I´m often the host because I like doing it. In other realms Kathy is the lead singer, and in other places Anne is the lead singer, so we don´t have a leader.

So how do you organize yourselves then?

Like a handful of water. We meet, and somebody has an idea, and we know that in the season we´re going to do a couple of shows and then we´ll bounce the ideas around, go to the rehearsal room and figure out how that idea works, take it apart, get angry at each other, and then hug each other, and then do it all over again. And we figure out really how the show works on the premiere.

A rock musical version of the toothbrush story

Do you all have other jobs, or is acting your main job?

We´re all professional actors and musicians. Over the Corona times it´s been very difficult, but while some of us do other work on the side, we are basically actors. Bronwynn teaches Feldenkreis. We are all involved in other occupations besides the improvisation work, several of us are very active voice-over artists. And Dennis has been in just about every major musical in the German speaking world for the last few years – was in the original ensemble of Elisabeth, and in Bodyguard – das Musical, etc. And Michael has played in a band for 15 years and is a Nestroy Preis winner. We all work in TV and film, other theatre projects, readings… the hustle that every performer has to do.

I noticed you have a new musician team member who played the guitar with you in your latest performance at KulturSommerWien. Is he a permanent new addition?

We have two musicians in the English Lovers regularly, Belush and Klaus. And the fellow that was playing with us on that Thursday night is Oscar, and he is the son of Dennis and Anne. He´s a wonderful musician and for the past two or three years he´s been jumping in and playing with us when we need somebody.

Guitarist on stage
Oscar accompanies the English Lovers on stage.

How is improv different from traditional text-based theatre?

Well, the work is actually the same. It´s just opposite. In text-based theatre you start with the words and you find emotion and movement, and in improvisation it is just the other way round, you start with emotion and movement and you get to the words.

Jim Libby feeling the emotion

You have to be really quick in your head though, to find the words, don´t you? You guys are so linguistically quick and finding the right words all the time.

I don´t want to burst any bubbles, but it is a little bit of a magic trick. And perhaps that is another difference between improvised and text-based theatre, that the one is an interpretive work and the other as a purely creative work. Yes, the Lovers are a group of very talented, very experienced creators and performers, and have quick minds, that´s all true. But, that trick of making it seem as though they always know the right words is because whatever words they are saying are the right ones because they are the only words that we have. People ask me, do you get nervous, and I say no, I never have stage fright because nothing can go wrong when creating the show as we do it.

It seems to me that you help each other out when one of you gets stuck, right?

It may seem that way. But our ethos is that everyone is responsible for the scene. The scene will fly or fall with all of us, and so no-one is responsible, and yet everyone is responsible. We´re following the follower, we´re leading the leader, and so in that way, sure we´re helping each other out all the time, because we´re all trying to be in service of the moment. We want to be in service of whatever is happening right then and there and try to make that as big or small or sexy or scary as possible.

I had to laugh so much when editing your photos, going through the scenes in my head.

And that´s one of the things that draws me to improvisational theatre, and one of the things that makes it so difficult to talk about. We live in a product-oriented society, and our art form is pure process. It´s really hard to talk about processes in a product-oriented society. But our process does create one product: memory. It´s the memory in everybody that was there to share that moment. And for me that´s really fascinating, because I have a terrible memory. People will come up to me on the street and say “oh, I was in the show and you said this and that, and I will get blown away, because I can understand when someone has seen a favorite movie several times and can quote lines form it – but these people have seen the show only once, and that memory is so powerful! I just think that´s fascinating. I love the ethereal nature of our artform, because once it´s done it is gone into the ether and into people´s memories.

So you don´t remember the lines from your own shows?

You know, it´s funny. None of us do. There are some moments from some shows that will stay in your memory, and some of them are part of our “legends of our family”, but a lot of the time, because as a performer – and I can only speak for myself – when I´m performing I´m sort of in a liminal space where, yes, I´m making a lot of decisions consciously, but I´m making way more decisions unconsciously. Because the character is talking. The moment needs a thing. Because somebody comes out and does something, I´m not making the decision, it´s just – oh if that happens, then this has to happen. And so, when you´re in that space, that between stage, that liminal space of conscious and unconscious, I think the hard-drive stops recording. The Greeks used to say that it´s the muse, we´re a vessel and the muse flows through you, that genius comes to you from that ethereal thing. And then, I think it was in the Renaissance, when they started saying that genius is in you and you just have to be able to let it out. I think I´m still tending with the Greeks, because it comes from somewhere, and a character will say things that I, Jim, have never thought of in my life! Or a character will do a thing and then Jim´s brain is going “ok, now we have to deal with this!”. Jim is an OK singer, but a lot of characters that I play are really cool singers. So, I as a performer let go, and something else takes over. And I think that´s one of the reasons why so much gets lost in memory. And also of course because it´s a lot, we´ve done a lot of shows.

And do you, the more you do it – and you´ve been doing it for twenty years – do certain elements come back all the time?

You know, of course certain elements come back, because stories are stories and stories are about people. There is this claim that there are only seven types of stories in the world, or some others say there are nine archetypes, or some say no, no, no, there are only three types of stories. So of course things come back: moms, fathers, love, jealousy, envy, will always be part of the work because it´s the human condition. We´re telling a lie that tells the truth.

Jim Libby and Michael Smulik

How are Viennese audiences?

Viennese audiences are, I would say, just about like every audience in the world. I always see every audience like they´re one person. And I usually try to interact with that person as best as I can, and sometimes the audience is really rambunctious and they want to be crazy, and sometimes that person is a little meek and needs some help to come and play with us. One thing that I really like about Viennese audiences is how important theatre is to the Viennese. We complain often about the support that we get from the government. Don´t get me wrong, it should be much better, but it´s so above and beyond what many other places have. I´m quite grateful for the support that we do get, but it´s not enough, we need to do better. But that said, the support that we get from Viennese audiences is amazing. I am always thrilled. I remember 25 years ago when we would play the shows our rule was “if there is one more person in the audience than there is on stage, then we´ll play the show, and hopefully we won´t have to cancel tonight”. And then going from that sort of thing to doing shows where we were breaking all of the fire laws and stuffing 120 people on a summer night into the bar of the Drachengasse and doing this huge concert, something that is unimaginable today! But that just being the first Friday, and then the next Friday we did it again, and then going from that to … nothing ...

Were there any positives that came out of the Corona pandemic for you and the team?

Sure. Yes. I think there was a lot of reflection, and we took some time to kind of shake it off and recuperate. And when we realized of course, OK, we´re not going to be in real life anymore, but we would like to continue to create and hang out with our community out there, we decided to go online. We did a streamed show from the theatre, live, just us, but we did it every night live at Christmas time. Then we did it again in spring of this year. So that was a weird thing to first allow ourselves to do something in which we didn´t have to be good. We wanted to give ourselves the allowance to be terrible and to make mistakes and not to have to be professional right away, because it wasn´t our medium. I think for the audience members it seems simple, right? Like you´re doing the same things you always do, just in front of a camera, but in fact it´s not.

You don´t have the interaction with the audience either, right?

Oh, we found ways around that. There was a podcast show that Michael and I did, on Youtube “It should be about something“. We did 50 episodes. We got quite a bit of a fanbase, they started a Facebook group, and when we were on a break, every Thursday they posted “it´s a sad Thursday, when will “It should be about something come back?”. And this show that Mike and I were doing, we used it to teach ourselves the technology, about cameras, and lighting, and how to use editing software, including live editing software, and how can be broadcast, and so when Christmas time rolled around and we went into the theatre we had a chance to bring a lot of experience and with the technicians there we created a show that was live every night, and the audience could communicate with us in a way, and we had three cameras, and the show was made for the screen. So you could watch it in your home. And then in spring we did it again, but in a completely different way and with a different technical system, and so that was really incredible. That was something that came out of the pandemic I think that was a big plus. Having a chance to explore that thing that we never explored before, and having an understanding of a thing that´s never going to go away.

And will you be using the streaming still now that you can perform live again?

Absolutely. We´re convinced that we´re never going to be at full capacity at the theatre for Christmas time. It´s possible that we may have some people in the room in December, great powers willing, but… we´re planning on, whether we can have people in the room or not, to definitely be streaming the show. And the show will be created so that if you´re at home you get to see a show, and if you´re in the theatre you get to see a show, but those two shows, even if it´s happening at the same time, will be very different shows. Because when you´re home, everything you see we will be controlling. And when you´re in the audience you get to control your own “camera” (your eyes).

Well, I hope you will have a live audience component at Christmas, because I think it will be more fun for you.

Of course it is. That´s just the absolute favorite. The whole point of improvised theatre is the sharing of the moment, and it´s really hard to share those moments when you´ve got a literal fourth wall between you and the audience.

I really look forward to seeing you again at the Drachengasse. like the intimate space at Drachengasse, especially the auditorium shaped like an amphitheater that you use for the specials. That is a great space because you are kind of surrounded by the audience and it is an intimate frame.

It´s a wonderful space and it´s not without reason that the Drachengasse has been such a leading force in all theatre, let alone our Wenigkeit, so anybody who is anybody in the Vienna theatre landscape has worked at the Drachengasse. The spirit of the women who run that place is amazing. And especially at Christmas time when we do our Christmas show, it is exactly that feeling of everybody gathered around to have a drink and a laugh, it´s really nice.

Any future projects for the Lovers, if you had all the resources in the world?

I don´t know. Of late I´ve been finding it difficult to put myself into the future. I don´t like thinking about it. I don´t like making plans, because of the 18 months of frustration. The way the pandemic forced us all to be in the moment, because all of a sudden there was no future, you couldn’t make plans. And I saw all the people who produce shows, friends of mine, like the improv festival at the TAG that I champion, last year – we had to cancel of course- and we had this back and forth and back and forth, they tried it again and again, and Corona said no, and again, and Corona said no. I found it so admirable, getting up again and again. But at the moment, I can´t do it. All I know is that we´re going to try to be in the room with people and share stories in the dark with them, as soon as we can. And whatever we have to do to make it safe and fun for everybody, we´re going to do that and we just hope it happens as soon as for as long as possible.

I hope so too. I´ll be there in the dark auditorium. Thank you so much for this interview, Jim!

Here´s to a great show!

The English Lovers will be taking up their Late Night Theatre at Drachengasse again this fall, knock on wood. They will also be performing at the Improv Festival at TAG in October, and a performance at Vienna´s English Theatre is planned for February. I keep my fingers crossed that we do not have another pandemic monkey wrench thrown at us to stop the plans! I highly recommend going to any and all of their shows.

In my research I came across a nice podcast interview with Jim Libby and Lena Försch about improvisation, so if you want to hear his words in his own voice, here´s your chance.

Oh, and, pssst, Jim told me he moved to Vienna for – you guessed it – love… “The only reason a man should cross the big water,” he laughs. “Ask me why I stayed.” “Why did you stay?” “For the Schnitzel!” And there you have it. “Love goes away, but Schnitzel you can get on every corner.”

All photos © Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

2 thoughts on “Love(r)´s labour ´s never lost

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