We are in the middle of a revolution on television. A revolution in which arguably the hottest show on TV is on PBS. Downton Abbey, a period drama set in early 1900s England, focuses on the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and the staff that looks after their estate. I know - HILARIOUS!
As cultural phenomenons go, Downton Abbey is up there with Game of Thrones, LOST, and all of the Marvel movies. Examples such as these both define and transcend genre, which is why they’re so popular. Simply put - people just can’t get enough.
This also makes them ripe for parody, one of which starts playing at ImprovBoston tonight, May 3rd, 2013. Beginning it’s seven-week run at 40 Prospect Street in Cambridge, MA. is DOWNTON IB.
The co-director/co-producer of Downton IB, Tom Towell, was kind enough to sit down with me earlier this week to talk about the creative process, getting this show off the ground, and how exactly you take something everyone admires and parody it without losing what people love about it in the first place.
IB: You’re a very active member of the ImprovBoston Community and it seems like you always have something going on. Is this the first showcase show that you’ve conceived?
TT: This is the very first. This all started last summer. It was Annie Kozakiewicz idea – she came up to me and said, “what if we did Downton?” I was on board immediately.
IB: How long have you and Annie known each other?
TT: I met Annie in January of 2012. A lot of the cast has been playing together since that time. Working with Annie on this project has been a blast. I remember sitting on the patio at The Field and when she said “Downton” it hit me like a bolt of lightning.
We worked on the concept for a couple months and then started to slowly pitch it to people. By September 2012, we had a cast in place. We took our time figuring out the process and the show you’ll see on Friday May 3rd is much different than the show we initially came up with. It was originally going to be a Close Quarters (a specific form of improv that plays with spatial relations and time) and make up characters in the style of Downton Abbey. We realized that it would be easier to parody the actual show, so with that was in place, we pitched to and were picked up by The Jam in December. In January we were granted a five-week run at Comedy Lab. Now we’re doing the showcase. We never thought it would come to this – we are so excited.
IB: So initially you pitched it to The Jam as a one-shot deal?
TT: One-shot deal. We had some interest from Comedy Lab, but we had to prove that we could put this show on – we needed a proof of concept.
IB: What was the process like between performing at The Jam and getting a run at comedy lab?
TT: The Jam is crucial to the process because you need to show the producers and the audience that the show has legs. If you have a good show and get into Comedy Lab you get to experiment with form. Just like the name states – it’s the lab. You find out what works and what doesn’t. We were fortunate to get all five weeks in January and use that time to find out what worked best on stage. One of those weeks, Mike Descoteaux (Artistic Director of ImprovBoston) came to the show and luckily for us, he saw one of our best efforts.
When it came time to submit for The Showcase, we had everything we needed – a full cast in place, proof of concept, and all of the people in the decision making process- including Mike- had gotten the chance to see the show. It all went from there.
IB: This show is a little different than other shows a person might see at ImprovBoston in the sense that it’s a straight up parody of an existing property. What has that process been like? How has the cast taken to the challenge of making each character their own?
TT: There was never any crossover when we all chose our individual characters. Everyone wanted to be someone different. We all studied our characters, we made sure to watch the show together, and what’s been so remarkable is how well everyone plays their character. It’s a very large cast – generally Showcase shows will have the same number of people, but they rotate characters. In this show we have seventeen people and we’ve learned through the rehearsal process to play together and share the stage so that no one gets left out. If my character, Mr. Carson, is on stage with Ari Stern’s Thomas, we know how those characters should interact and everyone else in the cast responds to that. That has made us a very strong cast – we’ve all gelled together so well.
IB: I was lucky enough to see the penultimate episode at The Comedy Lab. Everyone on stage got his or her point across in short order and I really didn’t feel like any one person was the star of the show. It didn’t look like anyone said to themselves before hand, “ok – this is a (insert character name) episode.” Everyone seems to be on the same page with the goal of advancing the plot.
TT: Based on whatever the ‘get’ is, there are always multiple story arcs that arise – an overarching one, an upstairs one, and a downstairs one – and by the end we make sure they all tie together. Because this is a parody of the genre itself, it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the ‘get’ is – we all play the situation as straight as a character from Downton Abbey would.
We just had a rehearsal that was based on something being stolen. It ended up being that a Mayan stone calendar was stolen from the attic. Everyone reacted in such a way that made total sense within the rules of world we’ve established. Of course there is a Mayan stone calendar in the attic and it’s the source of their wealth AND it’s missing! Now the game is finding out how the rest of the family will react to that vs. how does the serving staff will react. It was a pretty funny afternoon.
IB: I think it’s great that this is not going to be like the American version of the British Office. When The Office started running in America, the first season was more or less a shot for shot remake of the British version. I love that this show is the going to be continuing adventures of Downton Abbey as opposed to an Americanized remake.
TT: Exactly – you provide us the setting or ‘the get’, and we will give you these characters in that setting.
IB: What kind of inspiration are you asking for from the audience?
TT: We’re pulling themes right from the first three seasons of Downton Abbey. Themes like war, illness, debt, scandal, celebration of life, honoring those who died. Instead of throwing the characters right back into that setting we’re trying to expand on those themes in new ways. Maybe everyone in Downton gets cholera or a Mayan calendar goes missing. Yesterday all of the veterans were returning from war and through some mix up there’s a zombie apocalypse upon the house. The question is how would everyone in the house – both upstairs and downstairs – deal with that.
What’s nice is that there are always three reactions – the upper class reaction, the working class reaction, and the combined reaction when the two sides of the house interact.
IB: Is it’s similar to other episodic shows we’ve done at IB in that what happened last week, happened?
TT: Yes – episode two picks up right where episode one left off with similar story lines. We’re not going to try to kill anyone off in the show, but if a character dies, they die. In the Comedy Lab run, two of the main characters were killed, but through the beauty of improv, they were able to come back as ghosts. We’re going to try not to kill anyone off until week five.
IB: How many weeks is this show running?
TT: We have a full seven-week run.
IB: Not to put any added pressure on you, Tom, but we’re headed into May sweeps. You’re the corner stone of the season schedule and your face is on the poster.
TT: No pressure.
IB: How long have you been performing at ImprovBoston?
TT: I started in June of 2011 in Comedy School and after I completed classes I got cast on Face Off. So I’m coming up on my two-year anniversary at IB.
IB: In two years, you’ve gone from Improv 101 to co-producing and co-directing the Showcase show from May until the middle of June. That’s a lot.
TT: It is a lot. But I’ll tell you this – I am where I am and have been able to do the things I’ve done because of the people I’ve been around. I was very fortunate to be in classes with the same core group of eight people who stuck together through the whole process together. We got better together. Just because we are now out of the school of improv, doesn’t mean we stop learning. No one ever stops learning.
Take someone like Will Luera – he’s been doing improv for eighteen years. That means he has sixteen years of improv experience that I don’t have. Once I hit my eighteenth year, I will still be learning because it’s an ever-evolving process. Being on a cast or doing showcase shows are all learning experience that go into how you play as an improviser. This whole experience has been unbelievable. It’s been great.
IB: Downton Abbey has become this cultural phenomenon. I’ve seen a few parodies of the show that were pretty much shot for shot remakes of the series and to be honest I am so mad at myself for not thinking up the name “Downton IB,” but I am so glad that someone did.
TT: It’s such a fun world to play in. When we’re all standing in the wings in costume and that first note strikes and we walk on stage to the theme from Downton Abbey, it’s like a transformation. I’m no longer Tom Towell; I’m Mr. Carson. It’s so much fun to get to live in that world for an hour for an audience.
The cast is AMAZING. Everyone owns his or her character. I could not ask for a better group of people to work with. The cast is really eighteen because we have a phenomenal piano player in Steve Sarro – he plays piano for Main Stage, TourCo, and Face Off as well.
We will have some special guests that will stay around for an episode or two. Because it is a continuous run – or serial – if people miss an episode they’ll be able to go on the Facebook Event page and read what happened previously so they can follow the entire storyline.
IB: My favorite thing about this show is that the performers are a mix of people who are cast and un-cast members at ImprovBoston.
TT: It’s a great mix of people who just do improv, who just do sketch, or who aren’t currently part of any show on the schedule. It’s a group of people that I would perform with until the end of time.
Lucky for us, we don’t have to wait for the end of time to see them perform together - we only have to wait a few hours. Downton IB premieres tonight at 10:00 PM at ImprovBoston, located at 40 Prospect Street in Cambridge, MA. in historic Central Square.
For tickets to the show, please click here: http://downtonib.eventbrite.com/
Buy your tickets now… it’s going to sell out.