FanFiction writers are often maligned for creating derivative works but in reality, fanfic writers are creative, talented people who are simply using the written word to pay tribute to the shows they love. In Texas, the troupe at the Austin Improv have taken that concept to the next level with a show called Fandom: Improvised Fan Fiction in Your Favorite Worlds.
Every Saturday night for the past six weeks, the company has donned costumes pieces and invited an audience in to help tell tales from the world’s most popular fandoms. They started with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went on to Lord of the Rings, Batman and the Hunger Games. And on February 23, they’ll be closing out with a fandom chosen by popular vote. (Click here to make your choice.)
I was so tickled by this idea I chased down one of the show’s creators, Kaci Beeler and demanded she tell me everything. She was were kind enough to do so just before embarking on a new journey, to a galaxy far, far away.
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Andy Crouch and I have been directing, producing, and performing in improv shows of various types for over 7 years together. We’ve done improv in the world of Star Trek, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Hitchcock, and many more. After studying Myth in Storytelling with Seattle’s Randy Dixon about a year ago, we got excited about the idea of giving an audience an experience tailored to their own desires and wants.
We’re both fans of several of the fandoms we chose. I personally have a deep appreciation and love of Batman and Harry Potter. I know Andy is a huge Star Wars geek. In the past, I was very into reading fanfiction online, and I even wrote some back before I started producing theater. I loved the idea of having our talented improvisers actually take on the challenge of playing these beloved characters and worlds onstage. Good improvisers are very flexible onstage and can take on new character traits, scenarios, and suggestions in a snap. The idea of taking an audience’s desire for a new ending, an unseen scene or outtake, or a completely bizarre new set-up was very appealing. I knew we could do it and do it well.
Why did you pick the fandoms you picked (and I love the voting idea for the final show)?
We looked at the top Fandoms online on places like Fanfiction.net, and also polled our friends. I feel like many were no-brainers: Batman, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings – these are fan worlds with huge followings. They are all household names with many well-loved characters and story lines. We also took a few risks with new fan favorites like The Hunger Games and a side-ways step with Classic Nintendo, which honestly opens up a whole can of worms with all the possibilities.
Was there any concern that the license holders for these shows would be unhappy?
Since each show is just a one-off, we were not concerned. I knew that by the time they sent us any kind of warning, the show would be over and done with. Plus, we wouldn’t be performing any material actually written by anyone. We’re covered under parody law and probably not making enough money for any of these larger corporations to be concerned.
Which fandom brought in the best audience so far and why were they the best?
As of now we still have 3 performances left, including Harry Potter and Star Wars which we know have some of the most devoted fans of all time. All of our shows except for the first one have sold out, so I couldn’t say based solely on numbers.
So far our Batman show was the most well-received all around. The audience was excited, ready to participate, yet respectful. They gave great suggestions and our cast (which was full of Batman/DC fans) was especially primed to deliver a satisfying performance. In a few of our other shows we had younger audiences who were more interested in messing with the show than creating fun moments together. The Batman audience was mature yet playful, and I really felt like we all created the show together. We had moments that felt magical, which is why we love to improvise instead of script a show. You never know going into a performance what exactly is going to happen. The audience gets in on that energy and then you literally create something new together. They gave us suggestions for scene pairings, plot twists, came onstage to play trivia and share stories, and a guy dressed as Bain came onstage to do a scene with a bunch of other Rogues Gallery villains.
What do you do to prepare for each week’s fandom?
We have a rehearsal/planning session before every show where we brainstorm for possible game and scene set-ups based on the world and characters we have to play with. We have a wall with pegs on the stage where we hang wigs and basic costume pieces for every show, which the cast members cobble together from our own closets. Some of us had costume pieces from Ren Faires that worked perfectly for Lord of the Rings and old Halloween stuff for various unusual garments. We generally stay away from props and choose instead to mime them. We did have a Ring for LOTR, a stake for Buffy, and utility belts for Batman.
How was Buffy night different from Batman night?
Buffy was different in its focus from Batman for a variety of reasons. We have basically one long-running series to look at for Buffy. The same actors portraying these characters from what is primarily known as a television series. Even though Buffy is technically the main character, in the show I felt like many of the characters got equal stage time in games and scenes. Angel, Spike, Willow, and Xander are all so well-liked and we found that the audience wanted to see new interactions between these characters. The audience also loved to hate on Dawn, so we played with that. At the end we did a never-before-seen Buffy episode with a new villain – Jack the Ripper, and of course, all of the Scoobies helped solve the mystery.
For Batman, we get to draw from such varied media to create the show: comic books, TV shows (1960s live action and animated), films featuring various director and actor takes on the world and characters, novels, and more. We had the improvisers compete for who would play Batman, and the audience voted on their favorite. By the end, I truly felt we had found the perfect improviser from our cast for the role. We got to play scenes in a variety of styles from an animated-series inspired Joker and Harley Quinn scene to a Christopher Nolan-style Batman monologue and a 1960s Adam West and Burt Ward fight scene complete with POW!, WHAM!, SPLASH! signs.
Like I said, I used to be a huge Harry Potter fan. I’m also a huge fan of Robin. I have full Hogwarts uniform robes and wands, as well as a complete 1960s-TV style Robin costume.
In 2007, when I was 20-years-old I performed a one-woman show of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, playing every single character in a 25-min version of the film. My proudest moment was drawing a face on my hand with a marker during the show to then use as a puppet to play Voldemort’s face on the back of Professor Quirrel’s head.
A few years ago I wore my full Hogwarts uniform on a trip to Universal Studios Wizarding World of Harry Potter despite the heat. It was worth it just to hear the workers dressed as Prefects say, “Get back to class, Gryffindor!” whenever I walked by them.
I also directed and produced an improv show called “Holy 1960s Batman, Batman!” in the summer of 2011 that played to sold-out crowds and received rave reviews. I played Robin/Dick Grayson and did my very best to perfect Burt Ward’s overeager side-kickery from the original show. The actor we had play Batman did a spot-on impression of Adam West, and also added his own flair. We played out a full 2-part episode in every show complete with special guest villains, a bumbling Irish Chief O’Hara and Commissioner Gordon, innumerable puns and word play, and full out fight scenes (which is why we were able to recreate one in the Batman Fandom show).
Basically, I take the things I love and turn them into theatrical shows. It’s the very best way I can imagine to share what I love about each of these worlds and characters.
What’s your advice for anyone who wants to take their fandom to the next level?
I’ve always believed that if you have an idea that you feel strongly about – just go for it. Work hard, be smart about every aspect of your creation, and find others who are passionate to join you. If you tackle goals from a place of love, honesty, and sincerity, chances are those traits will bleed positively into the work and inspire and enthrall other people. I don’t think anyone should just copy someone else’s work, but rather use it as a springboard for creating a completely new experience for people.
I often think in terms of “theatre”, using what inspires me to create a live event for others. I’m not certain I would want to only perform something like Fandom for several years in a row, but I don’t feel tied to it. Honestly, there is lots to be inspired by all around us. I think creating something leads to more creation if you keep yourself open. Take the first step and then say “yes!” to what follows.
I’d rather be more of a creator than a consumer any day.
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If you’re in the Austin area, check out The Fandom Show or any of the great shows at The Hideout Theater.
Photos courtesy of Kaci Beeler.
Stage photos are from Steve Rogers Photography