Imagine walking into a theatre, taking your seat, watching the house lights dim, and knowing that nobody in the entire room knows what is about to happen – including the actors.
That is the premise of Rob Mello’s stage production, “The Bed”, which completed its run at The Robert Mello Studio in Doraville in March. “It’s very moment to moment, it’s very truthful,” Mello said. “It’s about working from where you’re at and still creating a relationship between two characters.”
“The Bed” is an improv show in which 8 actors are given complete freedom to create scenes on the spot. “We’re basically taking a very actor-driven approach and creating these four moments in time that take place anywhere you might find a bed,” Mello said.
This was Mello’s second time directing this production in Atlanta. For this run, Mello assembled the cast from a group of actors he taught in his own class, but had also taken improv classes elsewhere.
From there, the cast underwent a unique rehearsal process that would prepare them for long-form improv on stage. This included Meisner exercises and a drill Mello refers to as The Couch, in which the action revolved around a couch instead of a bed.
The actors started by improvising shorter scenes and then gradually expanding to the 15 to 20 minutes scenes that were required for the show.
“Meisner is about living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. What I’m trying to do is improvise truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” Mello said.
Mello believes audiences responded well to the show because the actors gained a true understanding of this type of improv and were able to avoid the pressures of your typical improv performance.
“The normal pressure is to be funny. This is 8 times out of 10 very funny, but it’s a different kind of funny and sometimes it’s not funny at all. It’s about creating these moments as opposed to worrying about laughs,” Mello said.
Amber Erwin, who also participated in the show’s last run in Atlanta, said the mixture of Mello’s Meisner training and the improv training she received at Highwire Comedy Company, coupled with a seasoned cast, created a sense of freedom for the actors involved.
“The Meisner technique has made me feel free enough to trust my instincts, whether in acting or in my life,” Erwin said. “This is the most confident that I’ve ever been on stage and it all goes back to the fact that I’m confident in my scene partners because I know that they can carry me and I can carry them. So it’s freeing.”
Between shows, Mello kept the actors sharp by giving notes after each performance, which he watched from the lighting booth. “It’s a little bit of a rush. I’m in the lighting booth sweating bullets with them. I think I am more stressed about it than the actors are,” Mello laughed.
For Erwin, the fact that the actors are working off instincts instead of a script, helped her avoid pre-performance jitters.
“Most actors do things so we don’t have to be ourselves, we can be somebody else,” Erwin said. “The actors and improvisers on stage are opening ourselves up with facts about ourselves. We’re literally us on stage.”
At the end of the day, Mello is extremely proud of his cast and the work they have done to help raise awareness about this kind of improv.
“I want people to leave knowing that improv can be more than just parlor games. That improv can be theater. It doesn’t have to be all silliness. It can have gravitas,” Mello said.
In fact, Mello is currently working with a member of the cast to develop “The Bed” into a scripted show.
“I’m proud of it! I know it’s different and I know there aren’t any shows out there quite like this,” Mello said. “I’ve lived in these great theatre cities and I feel like Atlanta still needs to catch up. I think the theatre here is so safe and I think Atlanta can really be on the theatre, film and TV map and not just the film and TV map.”
The final performances for “The Bed” took place on March 25, 2017. The cast included Ian Covell, Randy Havens, Sarah Zureick-Brown, Markis Gallashaw, John Jaret, Kelley Lockman, Renee Skibinski, Ella Bardine, Muretta Moss, Amber Erwin, Tom Rhoads, and Sorell Sanders.