“With improv, I can just be myself,” says Rebecca De Unamuno. “It’s where I feel the most comfortable.”
For a fine actor like Rebecca – with a comic bent and a particular love of improvising – the beauty of impro is that it grants both her and her audience immedate suspension of diselief, making it easy for her to take on any character she chooses:
“I can be a southern belle, a hooker, grandmother, even a man, or an inanimate object” she says, roles she wouldn’t always land in other situations.
“I would not be cast as the tall blonde size 8, because that is not what I am. In improv, I can be whatever I want to be. That’s absolute freedom, as opposed to, ‘No, you can’t do that, you can’t be that, you’re too this, you’re too that…’”
As It’s near the end of Rebecca’s Sydney Comedy Festival run, where she’s fronting The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno – “it just makes me laugh, that that’s the name of the show,” she says, with healthy self-deprecation – where she’s had the opportunity to showcase the talents of newer comics as well as bigger name stars like Frank Woodley as special guests.
But the reason I’m catching up with her – something I’ve been meaning to do for ages – is because I had the pleasure of seeing her improvising, once again, with a crack team of similarly talented individuals, as part of the Cale Bain- directed Full Body Contact No Love Tennis currently occupying the Tuesday night improv slot at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe.
There was a particular moment – that I won’t be able to do justice in words – in a scene she shared with another player, where she was an ‘elderly mother’ receiving a ‘home made present’ from her ‘daughter’. At a certain point early in the scene, every other improviser had the exact same idea of what the parcel, yet to be handed over, must contain, as they all contributed to the scenario. Rebecca took it a step further by ‘calling back’ to an earlier scene. It was magical to watch.
“They’re very exciting moments,” Rebecca says, “when you have that ‘shared brain’ experience on stage and you go, ‘I knew you were going to do that!’ It’s just as exciting as the moments where you go, ‘I had no idea you were going to do that!’”
That is the beauty of improv: the opportunity to “work with other people who are having a very similar, shared experience as you. And performing without that net – the trust that you put in other people, experimenting on stage and seeing what will happen. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But what a ride; what a risk: to have nothing guaranteed.”
I’ve known Rebecca since her university days. You know her too. Even if your love of comedy is a passing dalliance, you know her better than you imagine. Because, even if you think you haven’t seen any of the short films she’s appeared in that have made the Tropfest finals (Muffled Love, finalist, 2001; Tragic Love, 2nd place, 2002; Garbage Man, finalist, 2005; The Code, finalist 2008). Tropfest Finalist, Winner of Best Short Film at the 2009 World Comedy Film Awards); if you haven’t seen any of the Theatresports finals she’s played, let alone hosted or directed; if you haven’t seen her guest in various Chaser projects; haven’t heard her on Thank God It’s Friday; haven’t seen any of the various shows she’s been in or fronted in the various festivals around the world; not seen an episode of Big Bite; not seen the Great Debate she was in at a Melbourne International Comedy Festival; not see any of the three brilliant tours with Jason Alexander and his Comedy Spectacular; not seen her in Dad & Dave Live or Spontaneous Broadway…
Even then, you’ve been exposed to Rebecca’s work. You know her far better than you realise. Because you hear her voice regularly.
Between the “big acting jobs”, Rebecca does a lot of voiceover work. “I’m the one selling you products,” she says, citing current Pine-O-Clean and anti-smoking campaigns as the examples currently in high rotation. And it’s a good thing too – it’s those jobs that enable Rebecca to keep getting on the improv stage.
What I didn’t know is that initially, during Rebecca’s university days, she had her sights set on serious drama.
“I really enjoyed comedy and was into it, but I never really saw myself doing it,” she says. “I was going to be…” – adopts the voice – “… a serious actor. I auditioned for all the drama schools when I finished high school. I very much wanted to do theatre…”
It was in the pursuit of theatre – a major production by the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) of Danton’s Death – that Rebecca began hanging out with fellow student actors who were doing this thing called ‘Theatresports’, where they’d compete in teams, playing games that involved making stuff up on the spot. They’d play professionally, at the Belvoir St Theatre, as well as during lunchtimes on the stage of Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar, in a competition hosted by Adam Spencer.
“I used to go and watch, and think, ‘I could never do what they’re doing’, but over time I’d start to think of scenarios and things to say in response to scenes,” Bec recalls. Then one of her Danton’s Death mates “dragged” her onto the Manning Bar stage.
“I said, ‘but I don’t know what I’m doing’, and he said, ‘good!’” At the beginning of each round, he’d give her just enough information for her to get through the game. Adam would announce the next round as ‘Subtitles’, say, and Rebecca would ask, ‘What’s that?’ Her mate would reply, “just speak in a funny language and I’ll translate!” Thrown in at the deep end, Rebecca realised the comedic side of things were taking over!
In time Rebecca directed the Arts Revue on campus, after which, she was ‘discovered’; she was part of a troupe put together to create sketch comedy professionally. The show was called Larfapalooza. Actually, it was first and ever-so-briefly called The Sketchy Sketch Show. The cast consisted of stand-up comics Subby Valentine, Tom Gleeson and Sarah Kendall, the latter two, having just appeared in the Arts Revue, brought their friend and director onboard. The show played the Melbourne Fringe in 1998. “That was great,” Rebeccas recalls. “That was our first exposure to a festival, as such.
I remember interviewing Sarah Kendall at the time, and was surprised to discover how much Sarah loathed improvisation. Despite working so well with Rebecca, the stand-up comic in her couldn’t take the leap of faith without the safety net of a well-scripted routine.
“I would say the same thing about what Sarah did,” Rebecca explains. “There was no way that I could get together five minutes of material and work it and re-work it and re-work it again to make it right.”
It was, Rebecca reckons, through coming from those opposite ends and meeting in the middle, that the work was so good.
The second time Rebecca was cast in a sketch show, the cast was much bigger, and she knew only one other cast member. The show was Big Bite, which she appeared in with the likes of Andrew O’Keefe (another Sydney University improvising alumnus; now hosting Deal Or No Deal), Richard Pyros (now part of the STC enseble working under artistic directors Cate Blanchette and Andrew Upton), Jake Stone (lead singer of Blue Juice), Kate McCartney (an AFI-nominated animator), Melissa Madden-Gray (nowadays known as Meow Meow) and Chris Lilley…
“Apart from Andrew and I, none of us had met,” Rebecca recalls. “We were just this random collection of people they had put together and told, ‘be funny’.” Such beginnings could prove a disaster. Instead, good things happened.
“Andrew and I were the only improvisers, as such – apart from Chris Lilley, but he didn’t really see himself as an improviser,” Rebecca says. She and O’Keefe had the ideal working relationship with the writers: they’d be given a scenario, fall into character and start riffing – sketches would be created from that. This ‘Second City’ style of sketch creation worked a treat.
“We did one that was an elderly couple; we just started putting on the voices and the scenario evolved: we were doing an audition tape for Big Brother. It was just these two bickering oldies.”
By the end of the series, everyone got on well and worked together well – which of course means the show ended after a single season. “It’s a pity the second series never happened. We’d just gotten to know each other and hit out strides with each other and knew each other’s strengths and stuff.”
Knowing each other’s strengths is important. So is knowing your own. There had to be a point where Rebecca realised that she could trust herself, going out on stage without anything, and knowing that she’d be fine.
“It took me a couple of years to trust myself completely,” Rebecca says, but she can pinpoint a particular moment where “everything had aligned” and she’d need not worry. It was during a Theatresports game at the Belvoir St Theatre, in which she was playing a scene with Julia Zemiro. Because it was a bigger stage than the one in Manning Bar, there was more physicality, as opposed to the need of merely being ‘talking heads’. That mean the characters could enter in silence, establishing themselves physically rather than verbally.
“It was the first time I was aware of the silence that we had in a scene,” Rebecca explains. The scene was set in an art gallery, and both Julia and she came on ‘looking at paintings’.
“I had no idea how she was reacting to the paintings, but I was having a distinct reaction and expressing it physically, and the audience was reacting positively to that,” Rebecca remembers. “That’s when I completely trusted that what I was doing was working: I didn’t have to say anything in order to create a reality. It was a shared narrative with not one word spoken. There was just that element of ‘we get this now; this is complete trust. Neither of us has to break this in order to try and say something funny’.”
That, effectively, was the moment came where Rebecca realised she could go on stage with nothing, and, if need be, create something by continuing to fill the space with nothing. The confidence and ability to hold the audience with silence is massive. It was the point she trusted herself totally in improv.
While trusting the silence is important, trusting the other bits is important too.
“When I started, I realised I would do and say things that I had no intention of being funny, and yet people would laugh at them,” Rebecca says. “I was just being the character. That happened a lot when I was starting out: I was constantly surprised that people would find things funny.”
In time, Rebecca realised that she was funny because she wasn’t trying to be. “Sometimes you can try too hard, and you just shoot yourself in the foot. Whereas, if you just stick to the story and the character, the humour will come from that.”
The humour is present and accounted for. Does Rebecca still take on the serious roles? Well, she auditions for them. But, she says, she“always ends up getting the comedy, be it sketch or a play”. Furthermore, even when she lands a serious role, it doesn’t stay serious. Last year she played the radio MC in the Q Theatre production of Dad & Dave Live. The show was presented from the original radio scripts, on stage (as though the stage were the radio studio of the 1930s).
“I got the opportunity to put on lots of different voices, so it used all of the strings to my bow,” Rebecca says, “but my role was comedy, even though I was working opposite some really straight actors.”
Rebecca’s role, as MC, meant she had to address and interact with the audience.
“I had to break out of character – from the scripts – and still be a character and improvise with them. It gave me a chance to do everything I do. It was so much fun!”
Not least of all because it meant there could be a different, improvised bit every night:
“The demands of doing the same thingcan get a little monotonous for me. I like to shake things up a bit, so I would find ways of doing something a bit differently. When I spoke to the audience I would do something new each time.”
The she worked it was to establish a bit of a ‘crush’ on the character of the actor who plays ‘Dave’ in the radio show-within-the-play. She’d bring him forward during the ‘ad break’, when she’d engage with the audience, reading out his fanmail on stage. But the letter would always be from her, including a love poem – a different one improvised each night.
“It would always end up with me throwing myself at him, but he never knew how I would get there or what I would say.”
Being so adept at being funny while improvising, there is an essential question that has to be asked, given the success of British and American versions of Whose Line Is It Anyway. When are we gonna get an Aussie version on the box? I know Rebecca’s been involved in pilots to bring improv to the small screen.
“Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve done about four or five pilots.”
Rebecca reckons the closest we’ve come was last year, when someone local – she can’t remember who, but suspects it was Cordell Jigsaw – acquired the rights to “an Aussie Whose Line”:
“It was great: they got all these people together and they workshopped ideas, and a pilot was going to be made… but I haven’t heard anything about it.”
The difficulty of it, according to Rebecca, is the technical inexperience when it comes to capturing it for the screen. “Those in the industry haven’t seen enough improv to know how it works,” she says. The crew has to know how improv operates, and be prepared to follow the action. You can’t block out camera shots in a rehearsal; since it’s improvised, the performers may not be standing in the same place, doing the same thing. She reckons, the crews who film sporting events would be perfect for it, since they’re used to ‘following the ball’, the perfect metaphor for following improv action – and anticipating where it will go.
“It’s the immediacy of improv, when you’re in the live audience, that’s really felt. It’s quite tricky, trying to give the home audience that same feeling. That’s why, for Whose Line, they record for hours and broadcast the best bits.” They also have a formula, as Rebecca points out: “Wayne Brady will always be cast in the musical numbes, because that’s his strength; Ryan and Colin will always work together because that’s their strength. It’s not left to chance.”
I’m hoping it is Cordell Jigsaw who currently own the rights. Because they’re now Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, the Zapruder bit being Denton’s company. I remember seeing Denton as a regular contestant in Theatresports on the telly back in the ’80s. Maybe it’ll happen…
One of the other great live shows we need to talk about is Jason Alexander’s Comedy Spectacular, of which, Rebecca has been an essential part.
According to Rebecca, there are certain improvisors you just click with, and others, no matter how hard you try, you never really blend well with on stage. “It’s like a relationship: if it doesn’t work, you leave. If you find people you work well with, you want to stay in that relationship and you want to keep working with those people. Because you want to be inspired, and be inspiring to people.”
Jason Alexander and Rebecca De Unamuno have one of those ‘inspired and inspiring’ dynamics.
“He calls me his ‘sister from another mister’,” Rebecca says. “And I call him ‘my brother from another mother’. He started to introduce me as that on stage very early on. We’ve done three tours together now.”
Rebecca was approached to take part in the show because improv had been seen to be taking off in Australia, owing to Thank God You’re Here (although, fact is, there was very little improv in Thank God You’re Here; apart from the guest, the cast is very tightly drilled). The idea was to do something improv-based at the end of the show, that would involve all of Alexander’s guests.
The initial cast included Kitty Flanagan, Tom Gleeson and the Scared Weird Little Guys. “They were all enthusiastic, but it wasn’t what they all do, so it was a matter of trying to get something where we’d all ‘have a moment’. Jason was so supportive of that.”
By the third tour, Jason had brought his pianist with him, and wanted the big finale to be an improvised musical.
“My response was, ‘Um… are you kidding me? Do the things I love the most? With a Tony-Award winning Musical Theatre performer?’”
At the opening night, in the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Rebecca says she had a little ‘out-of-body’ experience, where she saw herself and said, “look at what you’re doing right now!” To say it went well was an unerstatement. According to Alexander, it’s as though the pair “had been performing together for 15 years”.
So back to Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno, the reason we’re having this little catch-up.
Rebecca was approached by Marko Mustac, the Creative Director of Impro Australia, who had put a submission in for a late-night impro show with guests, to the Sydney Comedy Festival, not knowing if the show would get up. When it did, he approached Rebecca to host it, figuring, she can, and besides, she knows a lot of comics who’d love to come on board as guests.
“I was given complete artistic freedom as to what it was”, she says. Her only misgiving is the name, which still makes her giggle. “It sounds like I’m so up myself’: ‘The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno’. It’s quite funny!”
Since Rebecca’s career began, and has continued, being theatre-based, and she has a view to devising long-form improvised plays, she’s was quite keen to incorporate some of those elements in what is still a “good old, humour-based improv sketch show”. However, she pulls it off with smoother transitions – so it feels more like a show, than a bunch of improv bits. And she adapts it to suit the guests.
“When Frank Woodley guested, we played a scene that would normally have words in it, as a mime, because it’s his absolute forte,” she explains. “And I close the show every night with a song. I play a nightclub singer, coming to the end of the set, and I wrap up the show with a totally improvised song.”
Bec will grab a stool and a mic and deliver a preamble over a vamping introduction, re-capping all the things the audience has seen in the show; since the show is improvised, so, too is the preamble. Then the reminiscence shifts from the night that’s unfolded, to the life lessons she’s been taught, including the advice she’ received over the years. She’ll casually ask an audience member to share some advice their mother gave them. That’s when it gets exciting. “Their answer becomes the title of the closing song, in which I deliver my parting thoughts. ‘Wear more make-up’ has been one of them. ‘Wash your face’ has been another.”
My parting thoughts? See Rebecca De Unamuno perform. Either in the Impro Late Show, or a round of Full Body Contact No Love Tennis. Or see the upcoming Theatresports grand final that she’s directing. You won’t just be amazed – you’ll be surprised at how amazed you’ll be.
• Impro Late Show with Bec De Unamuno May 11, May 12 - with special guests!
• Tuesdays and Thursdays are Impro nights at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe - Rebecca’s a regular
• Celebrity Theatresports, July - directed by Rebecca