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Five Women Improvising a Quiche How improv comedy gives "5 Lesbians…" its crackling energy

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

You could say that Marjorie is the key to understanding 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, even though her character doesn't exist. Or at least, she doesn't exist in the typical way.

Marjorie, you see, is a disgraced member of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Getrude Stein. And 5 Lesbians…,  which is currently playing one weekend a month at Soho Playhouse, follows the group's Annual Quiche Breakfast of 1956. As the women on stage gossip about which quiche will take this year's prize, they suddenly realize that Marjorie is in the house. Scandalous Marjorie. Marjorie who once submitted a horrifying quiche.

And just like that, the Sisters get sinister. They give Marjorie the side eye. They whisper rude things. And sometimes, they trash-talk to her face.

But Marjorie is not played by an actor. She's played by a randomly selected audience member. Every time the ladies hiss their disapproval, they're turning to some poor soul in the crowd. The result is audacious and funny, and it gets people on Marjorie's side.

That's a good example of the show's fizzy spirit. Even though it's about sisterhood and the power of community in a crisis, it's also a freewheeling comedy that takes major risks.

Marjorie, for instance, is never the same character twice. "Sometime, [the audience member who is selected to be Marjorie] gets sassy and talks back to us," says Megan Johns, who plays Wren, the Sisterhood's perky events chairwoman. "Sometimes, she speaks up in the middle. And we have a lot of fun, knowing that our characters really hate Marjorie, that we can give her dirty looks or tell her to keep quiet."

This improv spirit has always been part of the show. Created by The New Colony, it began as a short piece in 2010 before expanding to a full length in 2011. (It had a successful run at last year's New York Fringe Festival before moving to Soho Playhouse.) But even though playwrights Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood officially wrote the script, they were influenced by the director and the original cast, most of whom are still in the show.

"On day one, as an actor, you were essentially given the title of the show and given free rein to create a character," says Maari Suorsa, who plays Dale, a woman with a bizarre and stormy past. "I brought Dale in, and I got interviewed as my character and pushed into these improvised scenes to see how these women were going to interact with each other."

For Johns, this approach has created a deep connection to the material. "When you're creating it, you get this ownership over your character that you don't get when you just get a script handed to you and you're playing a part," she says. "You've made decisions about your character. You know things about your character that possibly the playwrights don't know."

For instance, Johns imagines that Wren is an avid bird watcher who occasionally uses her binoculars to keep tabs on her neighbors. We never hear about this in the production, but it's the kind of detail that can make a performance richer.

Along with the "Marjorie question," there are plenty of moments in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche that might get improvised on any given night. Suorsa recalls a performance when Johns spontaneously delivered a new line that made everyone laugh, including Suorsa. "That's the stuff that's best to be on stage for," she says. "You look to see how the girls are reacting."

But even a new joke doesn't make the performances collapse. After so many years together, the cast knows how to make surprising moments feel like a natural part of the show. "You can't be wrong if you have the support of everyone on stage," says Suorsa. "Even if I look around and say, 'Oh, I forgot what I was going to say,' we all know the show well enough to take cues and make sure we're all okay. It's the improv spirit of, 'We're all gonna band together, and we're not gonna let you down.'"

 Watch TDF's Theatre Dictionary video about Devised Theatre

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

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Photo by Dixie Sheridan