Alison Luhrs (left in the above photo) and Amalia Larson (right) regularly perform an improv show called Book Club, in which they play a pair of "shallow, well-off adults discussing a book supplied by the audience while consuming a massive amount of wine." Their next performance is this Sunday, April 22nd at 5:30 pm at the Pocket Theater. In this interview, they discuss the books that they've most loved to riff on, the books they most love in real life, and what you should expect from Book Club if you've never attended in improv show before.
This is such a great idea for a show-I imagine getting good audience suggestions is one of the most tricky things about improv, so it seems like the books must help to focus the show. Could you explain the premise in your own words? And did this show's premise evolve, or did it come to you fully-formed?
ALISON: Book Club is about extraordinarily priviliged, trend-obsessed people with zero self-awareness trying to use literature to relate to their lives. We get a book from the audience, and the premise of the show is that we are the only two members who remembered to show up to their monthly book club meeting. We then crack open a bottle of wine (dry and slammable is our go-to) and pretend we've read the book before reading passages out loud. The passages serve as a launching-off point for the characters to talk about their lives and occasionally have profound revelations about the way they see the world. The book provides us thematic direction that always gives the characters something new to connect with. The women we play are sometimes secret shoplifters, sometimes cheating on their husbands, sometimes falling in love with each other, sometimes addicted to painkillers, but always contain a secret depth. They're the kind of people who use acai bowls and soulcycle classes to show the world how put-together they are when everything is falling apart.
The show concept originally came from Amalia and I making fun of trend-obsessed mommy bloggers, which quickly devolved into us revealing tragic backstories for imaginary people we were just making fun of. Seattle's Improv scene is having a real explosion of experimental unscripted theatre right now, and we've been performing together for ten years, so the show felt like it would be fun!
AMALIA: Yeah, the show itself has evolved some and obviously the content is different every time, but the premise has pretty much always stayed the same. As we were starting to really get into it riffing on this idea, we discovered that there is basically endless material to be found within the archetype of these vapid, secretly desperate, moneyed women. We could throw these characters into a slice-of-life type setting with just a suggestion for an idea from the audience and there would be plenty to run with (or Zumba with, or Kegel with, pick your poison), but having the addition of the book from the audience keeps the surprises coming in real-time for us and gives us a device to build tension, break it, give a moment a button or an ally-oop, and even lovingly throw each other under the bus once in a while. We've got to stay on our toes after all.
I used to run the book clubs at Elliott Bay Book Company, and it seems as though "book club ladies" are a relatively easy target for mockery. There are a ton of easy book club jokes in pop culture-mean-spirited jokes about rich white ladies who drink a lot and can barely read, which doesn't reflect the reality of book clubs as I know them. You play with these expectations but you don't come from a place of superiority. How do you manage to avoid the cliches and find something worthwhile to investigate in your characters? Have your relationships with the characters changed over time?
ALISON: The best part about comedy is being able to trick an audience into caring about someone they were just laughing at. Flipping the power structure not just onstage, but between how the audience views the subject. Our women are wealthy, fixated on appearances, but at their core are desperate for meaning and connection. One of my favorite devices we use in the show is that we allow for one or two 'drops' -- moments when one of the characters will have an honest-to-god deep thought, only to be broken out of the trance a moment later by the other woman purposefully changing the subject. It's totally uplifting and deflating at the same time, and is born entirely out of a character choosing to be introspective for possibly the first time in their life, all thanks to whatever text they were just reading a passage from. We adore these characters, and I think we can mock their pretentions without mocking their personhood. All people are worthwhile, even the ones you avoid when you go to Whole Foods.
AMALIA: I feel like those clichés are a gift! Everyone knows exactly the type of people these characters are referring to which makes it so fun to use the known aspects of the stereotype as a spring board. Moments of shallowness or obliviousness that play directly into the stereotype make people laugh because they feel spot-on or eyeroll-inducingly familiar, but moments that truly break the clichés and reveal something of more substance are disarming specifically because they are unexpected from these characters you thought you knew so well a minute ago. When the armor is polished to perfection, it's that much more surprising to find the cracks. Being aware of where we're playing in relation to those edges, I would say, is a huge part of the fun. But at the end of the day, the most important part is that it all comes from a place of love rather than ridicule. These women care so earnestly about who and what they care about, that's where the humanity lies, but what they care so much about is, you know, designer yoga mats and who brought the best snacks to the peewee lacrosse championship, that's where the comedy lies.
Have you ever belonged to a real book club? What books do you like to read?
ALISON: I make fantasy games for a living, so staying up on my SFF is important. I subscribe to Uncanny Magazine for SFF short stories, and survive otherwise on a steady stream of Tor novels. All that magic and wonder can be a bit overwhelming at times, though, so I also try to dabble in nonfiction to cleanse the palette. I recently finished The Only Harmless Great Thing (which if you like alt history with radioactive elephants is a real gem) and am about halfway through I'll be Gone in the Dark, so I'm sort of all over the place with my reading list.
AMALIA: Honestly, I read almost exclusively nonfiction, I'm kind of a creature of habit like that. My favorites are usually either research-driven social science - most recently Bonk by Mary Roach and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or personal essays and memoirs like Sloan Crosley and Augusten Burroughs and anything ever by any Sedaris. I try to keep up on the books my favorite comedy folks write too-the Oswalts and Poehlers and Martins of the world. It's good to have role models. And this show is the only book club I've ever been a part of so far, but I'd be down.
Do any books make repeat performances in the audience? Are there any books you maybe wish you could ban from the show, or that you've mined to the point of diminishing returns?
ALISON: We've never had a repeat book! We've done Starship Troopers, The Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, even a physics text originally written in Japanese and translated into English. With that last one we learned the hard way that academic texts don't necessarily make for funny passages.
AMALIA: I don't know though, we had that one really thick textbook from the seventies about family psychology and that was a pretty good one. I keep waiting for someone to bring in like a dictionary or a bible or phone book or something (they still do phone books, right?). I'm sure we'd make it work, but that would definitely be a curveball. It's more fun and we find weirder stuff when we just pick something arbitrarily and it turns out to be way out of left field.
What are some memorable books you've worked with? Is there a formula for choosing a good book to work with?
ALISON: The best ones are the weird ones. Fish Won't Let Me Sleep had a lot of passages about spawning patterns, which is just about the deepest well in comedy, so that was great.
AMALIA: Fish Won't Let Me Sleep, FOR SURE. I think if anything, the formula is just to not overthink it. If you just pick that random historical fiction novel your uncle gave you that one Christmas that you've never read, odds are good that's gonna be the real winner.
I recall being intimidated before I attended my first improv show. Do you have any advice for SRoB readers who are considering coming to your show who have maybe never attended an improv show before?
ALISON: There is nothing worse than invasive improv. Having a stranger demand you answer questions and possibly get onstage is THE WORST THING EVER, and it's okay to hate things that are invasive and terrible. A good performer will always ask, will never touch, and isn't going to bother you if you don't want to be bothered with. Volunteering a friend never works either -- that's always a cue for me to swoop up the obnoxious friend who did the pointing.
The good news is that you won't have to worry about that with our show! Seattle's please-don't-talk-to-me attitude applies to our improv scene, too, and the nice thing about improv in the Pacific Northwest is that in our theatrical community we like our shows to feel like plays (it's something that really sets our scene apart from the rest of the country). If we can make you forget we never memorized lines, we've succeeded. All you need to know if you see our show is that at the beginning we'll ask the audience if they would like to let us borrow a physical book for an hour. We'll collect the book, and then the show will start! And we'll never ask you a question again for the rest of the show! Hooray! A good rule of thumb in improv is that you don't need to yell unless someone on the stage asks the audience a question. We also recommend the audience buy some wine from the concession stand and drink along - it'll only make us funnier. Come expecting to watch a play, because that's what unscripted theatre is!
AMALIA: Yes to all of that so much. There is nothing worse than improv that tasks the audience with making the show funny or not. Being part of a show is great! Being part of a show against your will is awful. If you come to Book Club, you should feel kind of like you're just sitting in on a meeting of a real book club that just happens to be with the kind of people who know the difference between a decent fumé blanc and trash, and prioritize the health of their nail beds over real literary analysis or personal reflection. It's a really good time.