âWith improv, I can just be myself,â says Rebecca De Unamuno. âItâs where I feel the most comfortable.â
For a fine actor like Rebecca â with a comic bent and a particular love of improvising â 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:
âI can be a southern belle, a hooker, grandmother, even a man, or an inanimate objectâ she says, roles she wouldnât always land in other situations.
âI 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. Thatâs absolute freedom, as opposed to, âNo, you canât do that, you canât be that, youâre too this, youâre too thatâ¦ââ
As Itâs near the end of Rebeccaâs Sydney Comedy Festival run, where sheâs fronting The Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno â âit just makes me laugh, that thatâs the name of the show,â she says, with healthy self-deprecation â where sheâs 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 Iâm catching up with her â something Iâve been meaning to do for ages â 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 â that I wonât be able to do justice in words â in a scene she shared with another player, where she was an âelderly motherâ receiving a âhome made presentâ from her âdaughterâ. 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 âcalling backâ to an earlier scene. It was magical to watch.
âTheyâre very exciting moments,â Rebecca says, âwhen you have that âshared brainâ experience on stage and you go, âI knew you were going to do that!â Itâs just as exciting as the moments where you go, âI had no idea you were going to do that!ââ
That is the beauty of improv: the opportunity to âwork with other people who are having a very similar, shared experience as you. And performing without that net â the trust that you put in other people, experimenting on stage and seeing what will happen. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesnât. But what a ride; what a risk: to have nothing guaranteed.â
Iâve 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 havenât seen any of the short films sheâs 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 havenât seen any of the Theatresports finals sheâs played, let alone hosted or directed; if you havenât seen her guest in various Chaser projects; havenât heard her on Thank God Itâs Friday; havenât seen any of the various shows sheâs 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 Broadwayâ¦
Even then, youâve been exposed to Rebeccaâs work. You know her far better than you realise. Because you hear her voice regularly.
Between the âbig acting jobsâ, Rebecca does a lot of voiceover work. âIâm the one selling you products,â she says, citing current Pine-O-Clean and anti-smoking campaigns as the examples currently in high rotation. And itâs a good thing too â itâs those jobs that enable Rebecca to keep getting on the improv stage.
What I didnât know is that initially, during Rebeccaâs university days, she had her sights set on serious drama.
âI really enjoyed comedy and was into it, but I never really saw myself doing it,â she says. âI was going to beâ¦â â adopts the voice â ââ¦ a serious actor. I auditioned for all the drama schools when I finished high school. I very much wanted to do theatreâ¦â
It was in the pursuit of theatre â a major production by the Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) of Dantonâs Death â that Rebecca began hanging out with fellow student actors who were doing this thing called âTheatresportsâ, where theyâd compete in teams, playing games that involved making stuff up on the spot. Theyâd play professionally, at the Belvoir St Theatre, as well as during lunchtimes on the stage of Sydney Uniâs Manning Bar, in a competition hosted by Adam Spencer.
âI used to go and watch, and think, âI could never do what theyâre doingâ, but over time Iâd start to think of scenarios and things to say in response to scenes,â Bec recalls. Then one of her Dantonâs Death mates âdraggedâ her onto the Manning Bar stage.
âI said, âbut I donât know what Iâm doingâ, and he said, âgood!ââ At the beginning of each round, heâd give her just enough information for her to get through the game. Adam would announce the next round as âSubtitlesâ, say, and Rebecca would ask, âWhatâs that?â Her mate would reply, âjust speak in a funny language and Iâll translate!â 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 âdiscoveredâ; 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. âThat was great,â Rebeccas recalls. âThat 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 couldnât take the leap of faith without the safety net of a well-scripted routine.
âI would say the same thing about what Sarah did,â Rebecca explains. âThere 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.â
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 OâKeefe (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 Lilleyâ¦
âApart from Andrew and I, none of us had met,â Rebecca recalls. âWe were just this random collection of people they had put together and told, âbe funnyâ.â Such beginnings could prove a disaster. Instead, good things happened.
âAndrew and I were the only improvisers, as such â apart from Chris Lilley, but he didnât really see himself as an improviser,â Rebecca says. She and OâKeefe had the ideal working relationship with the writers: theyâd be given a scenario, fall into character and start riffing â sketches would be created from that. This âSecond Cityâ style of sketch creation worked a treat.
âWe 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.â
By the end of the series, everyone got on well and worked together well â which of course means the show ended after a single season. âItâs a pity the second series never happened. Weâd just gotten to know each other and hit out strides with each other and knew each otherâs strengths and stuff.â
Knowing each otherâs 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 sheâd be fine.
âIt took me a couple of years to trust myself completely,â Rebecca says, but she can pinpoint a particular moment where âeverything had alignedâ and sheâd 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 âtalking headsâ. That mean the characters could enter in silence, establishing themselves physically rather than verbally.
âIt was the first time I was aware of the silence that we had in a scene,â Rebecca explains. The scene was set in an art gallery, and both Julia and she came on âlooking at paintingsâ.
âI 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,â Rebecca remembers. âThatâs when I completely trusted that what I was doing was working: I didnât 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 âwe get this now; this is complete trust. Neither of us has to break this in order to try and say something funnyâ.â
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.
âWhen 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,â Rebecca says. âI was just being the character. That happened a lot when I was starting out: I was constantly surprised that people would find things funny.â
In time, Rebecca realised that she was funny because she wasnât trying to be. âSometimes 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.â
The humour is present and accounted for. Does Rebecca still take on the serious roles? Well, she auditions for them. But, she says, sheâalways ends up getting the comedy, be it sketch or a playâ. Furthermore, even when she lands a serious role, it doesnât 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).
âI got the opportunity to put on lots of different voices, so it used all of the strings to my bow,â Rebecca says, âbut my role was comedy, even though I was working opposite some really straight actors.â
Rebeccaâs role, as MC, meant she had to address and interact with the audience.
âI had to break out of character â from the scripts â and still be a character and improvise with them. It gave me a chance to do everything I do. It was so much fun!â
Not least of all because it meant there could be a different, improvised bit every night:
âThe 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.â
The she worked it was to establish a bit of a âcrushâ on the character of the actor who plays âDaveâ in the radio show-within-the-play. Sheâd bring him forward during the âad breakâ, when sheâd engage with the audience, reading out his fanmail on stage. But the letter would always be from her, including a love poem â a different one improvised each night.
âIt would always end up with me throwing myself at him, but he never knew how I would get there or what I would say.â
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 Rebeccaâs been involved in pilots to bring improv to the small screen.
âAbsolutely,â she says. âIâve done about four or five pilots.â
Rebecca reckons the closest weâve come was last year, when someone local â she canât remember who, but suspects it was Cordell Jigsaw â acquired the rights to âan Aussie Whose Lineâ:
âIt was great: they got all these people together and they workshopped ideas, and a pilot was going to be madeâ¦ but I havenât heard anything about it.â
The difficulty of it, according to Rebecca, is the technical inexperience when it comes to capturing it for the screen. âThose in the industry havenât seen enough improv to know how it works,â she says. The crew has to know how improv operates, and be prepared to follow the action. You canât block out camera shots in a rehearsal; since itâs 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 theyâre used to âfollowing the ballâ, the perfect metaphor for following improv action â and anticipating where it will go.
âItâs the immediacy of improv, when youâre in the live audience, thatâs really felt. Itâs quite tricky, trying to give the home audience that same feeling. Thatâs why, for Whose Line, they record for hours and broadcast the best bits.â They also have a formula, as Rebecca points out: âWayne Brady will always be cast in the musical numbes, because thatâs his strength; Ryan and Colin will always work together because thatâs their strength. Itâs not left to chance.â
Iâm hoping it is Cordell Jigsaw who currently own the rights. Because theyâre now Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder, the Zapruder bit being Dentonâs company. I remember seeing Denton as a regular contestant in Theatresports on the telly back in the â80s. Maybe itâll happenâ¦
One of the other great live shows we need to talk about is Jason Alexanderâs 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. âItâs like a relationship: if it doesnât 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.â
Jason Alexander and Rebecca De Unamuno have one of those âinspired and inspiringâ dynamics.
âHe calls me his âsister from another misterâ,â Rebecca says. âAnd I call him âmy brother from another motherâ. He started to introduce me as that on stage very early on. Weâve done three tours together now.â
Rebecca was approached to take part in the show because improv had been seen to be taking off in Australia, owing to Thank God Youâre Here (although, fact is, there was very little improv in Thank God Youâre 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 Alexanderâs guests.
The initial cast included Kitty Flanagan, Tom Gleeson and the Scared Weird Little Guys. âThey were all enthusiastic, but it wasnât what they all do, so it was a matter of trying to get something where weâd all âhave a momentâ. Jason was so supportive of that.â
By the third tour, Jason had brought his pianist with him, and wanted the big finale to be an improvised musical.
âMy response was, âUmâ¦ are you kidding me? Do the things I love the most? With a Tony-Award winning Musical Theatre performer?ââ
At the opening night, in the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Rebecca says she had a little âout-of-bodyâ experience, where she saw herself and said, âlook at what youâre doing right now!â To say it went well was an unerstatement. According to Alexander, itâs as though the pair âhad been performing together for 15 yearsâ.
So back to Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamuno, the reason weâre 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 whoâd love to come on board as guests.
âI was given complete artistic freedom as to what it wasâ, she says. Her only misgiving is the name, which still makes her giggle. âIt sounds like Iâm so up myselfâ: âThe Impro Late Show with Rebecca De Unamunoâ. Itâs quite funny!â
Since Rebeccaâs career began, and has continued, being theatre-based, and she has a view to devising long-form improvised plays, sheâs was quite keen to incorporate some of those elements in what is still a âgood old, humour-based improv sketch showâ. However, she pulls it off with smoother transitions â so it feels more like a show, than a bunch of improv bits. And she adapts it to suit the guests.
âWhen Frank Woodley guested, we played a scene that would normally have words in it, as a mime, because itâs his absolute forte,â she explains. âAnd 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.â
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 thatâs unfolded, to the life lessons sheâs been taught, including the advice sheâ received over the years. Sheâll casually ask an audience member to share some advice their mother gave them. Thatâs when it gets exciting. âTheir answer becomes the title of the closing song, in which I deliver my parting thoughts. âWear more make-upâ has been one of them. âWash your faceâ has been another.â
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 sheâs directing. You wonât just be amazed â youâll be surprised at how amazed youâll be.
â¢ Impro Late Show with Bec De Unamuno May 11, May 12 - with special guests!
â¢ Tuesdays and Thursdays are Impro nights at the Roxbury Hotel in Glebe - Rebeccaâs a regular
â¢ Celebrity Theatresports, July - directed by Rebecca