The concept behind Microbiography is simple enough.
Two guests each tell a story from their life, then a trio of improvisers act out a scene based on those stories.
But there’s a catch.
The storytellers have no idea what story they’ll tell until the minute they step onstage.
At Microbiography, audience members give the storytellers a word. From that word, the storytellers must free associate until they think of a story from their life.
From that story, the improvisers will glean a bit of inspiration for their scene.
Terrifying? A little, but according to improviser Mark Robbins, that’s the whole point.
“The main thing is that it’s not something they’ve practiced or planned on,” he said. “That element of it, I think, is part of the without-a-net feel to the show. They don’t know what they’re doing, and that’s the way it works.”
At Microbiography 6, Friday at the Bartlett, local authors Kris Dinnison (“You and Me and Him”) and Rachel Hamby (“Televisions”) will share stories and the Freedom Association, a trio of improvisers featuring Robbins, Mara Baldwin and Pat Thomas, will create scenes.
Microbiography began after Robbins, an Inland Northwest fixture thanks to his starring role in more than two dozen Northern Quest Resort and Casino commercials, and his longtime collaborator Thomas, created the Freedom Association about six years ago.
The Freedom Association only performs once or twice a year during Microbiography events. For the past three events, Baldwin has been part of the team.
“We were looking to add somebody, and I got to practice with Mara once and I really liked what she did,” Robbins said. “She is half our age, which is hard to believe because she’s so great at it.”
The format is fairly common in the improv world, Robbins said. Sometimes the format finds improvisers themselves telling stories, but Robbins prefers it when the storytellers aren’t too familiar with improv.
“I like this format because it adds this element of this non-improviser interacting with the audience and remembering a story that they may not have otherwise remembered,” he said. “Even more than that, they’re actually sharing it with an audience.”
When looking for storytellers, Robbins looks for people who are somewhat recognizable, though sometimes guests are people Robbins knows who can simply tell a good story. He also likes the dynamic brought to the stage when the storytellers know each other.
The Freedom Association also likes having two storytellers at each show “so they have some moral support of each other, some encouragement, someone to commiserate with,” Robbins said.
At past Microbiography events, storytellers have included KXLY’s Kris Crocker and Robin Nance and Spokesman-Review writer Jim Kershner and his daughter Kate.
Robbins came to know Hamby and Dinnison after coaching Hamby’s son in soccer and teaching Dinnison’s daughter’s English class.
Robbins said audience members sometime come to Microbiography thinking the improvisers are going to re-enact each story, but they’re merely using the story as inspiration for a scene.
“We look at, oftentimes, it’s the logic of the decisions that they make in the story or maybe a phrase that they say that strikes us as something that might be an interesting avenue to pursue,” Robbins said.
A few examples of those phrases, taken from notes the Freedom Association took at a previous Microbiography: “In the clear from the storm,” “Oh, was that the tree?” “car as baby,” “doorknob fail,” “antique house” and “locked in bathroom.”
“Maybe the best moments are when I know what (Mara’s) initiating from the very beginning, and we can play with it and play that up,” Robbins said.
Sometimes, the connection between scene and story is clear. Other times, it’s not so obvious, but figuring out the link from story to scene adds to the fun of the night for members of the audience, as does imagining being on the other side of the stage.
“It’s fun to think about what story you would tell if that was the suggestion you got,” Robbins said. “Then it’s fun to think ‘What is it about that story that is worth pursuing?’ ”