“Was that scene a fail? Or a complete?” Amy scans the crowd expectantly. Behind her, fellow improvisers Rik, Jenny, Rama and Tim await their fate. They’ve just gone deep into a wonderfully bizarre scene titled “I Jinxed My Wife” which involved a witch, a wailing villager and are understandably unsure of their futures. And then comes the roar. Like a bloodthirsty coliseum, the mob cries out “fail!” and a sea of thumbs pointing downward are duly presented. And so it goes for these brave souls. They’ve failed. Horribly. On opening night. In front of a full house who know their power. And how do our heroes react? They’re bloody delighted.

Grand Theft Impro is a deceptively simple concept. A small cast asks the audience for ten scene titles. Anything will do. Tonight’s collection runs the gamut from ‘First Day in the Army’ and ‘The Never-Ending Burrito’ to ‘My Rubber Ducky Sank’. The cast’s goal is to perform ten scenes that do justice to each title within an hour. After each scene, the crowd gives their verdict: ‘fail’ or ‘complete’. Failed titles will be repeated ad infinitum until the audience is pleased with their efforts. It’s part democracy, part firing squad.

The crowd is beginning to test out their powers. The first ‘fails’ are called softly, reluctantly, perhaps not wanting to hurt the players’ feelings. But this ensemble doesn’t want their pity. It’s not about completing their task. It’s about genuinely finding that magic moment. It’s about pushing themselves to higher and higher levels creativity, madness and glorious stupidity. The half-hearted ‘completes’ are rejected by the team. “Oh, that was definitely a fail!” Rik exclaims.

Suddenly they’re really in the groove. Amy and Rik present a a star-crossed couple whose passion seems to rely on their interest in rare coins. Rama sells those never-ending burritos, with fatal consequences. A hairdresser takes revenge on an unfaithful client in the case of ‘The Accidental Mullet’. Jenny is brought back from the dead in ‘I Fought Lightning and Won’, her hair standing wildly on end.

One of the last titles, ‘Magic’, captures the spirit of the whole endeavour. There are three or four quick-fire fails here. Time is running out and the cathartic notion of failure - the big bad wolf that stalks our daily lives – has been fully embraced. Tim and Rik are poking that wolf in the nose, their efforts are almost comically pitiful – Tim pulls a rabbit out of a hat and whispers, ‘magic’! Rik and Amy follow suit ending their tries with the same whisper, now a running gag. The ‘fails’ are gleeful and unanimous. As an antidote, Rama comes to the fore and (accompanied by musical wiz Pan) sings an earnest song about her belief in magic. With a childlike, Artful Dodger accent she implores the crowd to affirm her belief that she can disappear, or find your card, or best of all, fly. Rik counters – magic dreams are futile, gravity and the laws of physics will thwart her every time. But not tonight. Rama rises, her feet leave the floor. She is delirious to have escaped the predictable bounds of this earth. It doesn’t matter that we can see Tim and Jenny lifting her up, we’re with her. We’re flying.

Calamity strikes. Time’s up and there’s still two titles left. Tim is singled out to perform the ‘forfeit’ – a mystery task in a red envelope. His punishment? To ask God to make him a better improviser. He sings a heartfelt plea to God, to be given the gift to “create without fear”. Tim’s prayers are answered not only by God, but also by Vishnu, Buddha, Kanye West and the Easter Bunny. Fear of failure. In impro it’s often unavoidable, even inevitable. But with these playful and dedicated clowns of Impro Melbourne, failure has never been so much fun.   

Written by Rhys Auteri: member of the Impro Melbourne Rookie company
Book Tickets for the final shows of Grand Theft Impro at the Comedy Festival