Bright Invention

Bright Invention: The White Pines Ensemble

Bright Invention: The White Pines Ensemble

Long form improvisation has returned to my life with vengeance. It was 2007 when I was last immersed in it. But now White Pines has formed its own ensemble. I’m in it. Jenn MacMillan is directing it. And our genre is long-form improvisation.

Improvisation has become popular entertainment through a variety of short forms. These are the elaborate games and scenarios enacted with audience suggestions in outfits like Comedy Sportz and Second City. Many of the comics you see on TV, in commercials and in sketch comedy programs like Saturday Night Live got their start in these ensembles, in which actors make up comic bits and characters on the spot. It takes skill and courage and when it works, it is hilarious.

Me and EdSwi

Me and Ed Swidey rehearsing while Eva Farrell cracks up.

Long form improvisation takes this basic premise – improvised scenes based on audience suggestions – and elaborates on it. Rather than being comically focused, long form scenes can go in any number of directions, emotionally. Some can be fierce, some sad, some uncomfortable and some hilarious. And the way the audience participates is different too. In short form, the audience is usually encouraged to shout out suggestions, and one or more actors in the ensemble are assigned to work with audience, again for comic effect. In long form, the audience suggestions are usually delivered more subtly. With LEAP, the long form I did in 2007, audience members were asked to anonymously write on notecards either a) a secret wish or b) something they’ve always wanted to say to someone but haven’t. Then our ensemble would randomly select notecards from a pile and read them aloud. These would become inspiration for the scenes we invented that night.

Jenn has invented a form which uses audience provided photographs. We call it Click. Instead of drawing notecards we draw photographs. Then, using some technology, we project the picture (which might be the one you brought) once the scene has been performed. You can see us do this at our debut, Monday January 27th, in Philadelphia.

This is an interview I did with one of our Bright Invention interns, Brooke Fitzgerald.

1) So before we start the formal interview how are things with you and White Pines in general? Any new exciting things on the horizon?

White Pines is going to have a remarkable year in 2014! We are closing in on renting space in Elkins Park from which we will offer classes. concerts, workshops and performances. Having a location in the community which is our home will allow us to more fully live into our goal of “growing communities.” White Pines became associated with the remarkable place we rented space in from 2009 to 2012 – the Elkins Estate – and since losing that location it has taken a while to “re-establish our brand” as it were. But with the formation of Bright Invention and the acquisition of a new space, we are back and better than ever!


Josh Totora and Emily Gibson rehearsing.

Bright Invention is going to perform in this new space, and become a teaching faculty there, offering classes in all kinds of performing arts – not just improv. Best of all, through Bright Invention, White Pines will become a valuable member of our community.

2) What inspired you in creating this ensemble? Was there a moment or event that sparked it all?

In 2007 I was in a Live-Art Fringe production called LEAP directed by Bobbi Block. It was a long-form improvisation performance with a cast of six actors trained in conventional, scripted theater, as opposed to improvisation. Bobbi, who is an extraordinary teacher of improvisation and director, put us through long-form “boot camp” to prepare for these three performances. It was a terrifying and transformational experience for me. I was deeply moved by the audience-actor connection long-form engenders, and convinced there is no other performing arts form which so celebrates the creativity, courage and genius of the actor.

It also occurred to me that this was an economically nimble form of performance. As I began to conceive of founding my own production company, I became more and more determined to make long-form improvisation a part of it.

It’s taken this long for a few reasons. White Pines had some other work to attend to first – like creating our resident ensemble program. And truth be told, the Estate distracted me for a bit. My priority was creating programs to suit that place. Finally, I understood that I didn’t want to run a long-form company – I wanted to be in it.

Jennifer MacMillan in rehearsal

Jennifer MacMillan in rehearsal

When you are ready, the teacher will appear, as the old adage goes. And so this summer, after meeting Jennifer MacMillan a couple of times socially a lightbulb went off: there she is – the director of our long-form company. Jenn was a founding member of Bobbi Block’s long form company Tongue and Groove, and had just recently stepped away from that company. She let me know she was looking for other opportunities. So I invited her out for coffee and asked her if she’d like to co-found with me a White Pines long-form company, that she would train and direct. My one condition – I had to be in it! She agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

3) What do you look forward to with Bright Invention? Both in the short term and long term?

The subtitle of our company is “The White Pines Ensemble”. My vision for this company lasts many years. As an ensemble of artists working together over time, we will become a vehicle for the creativity of every member of the ensemble, creating a way to support the ideas each ensemble member brings forward.

Jenn and I share the conviction that the possibilities for long-form improvisation are only just being explored, and we want Bright Invention to be on the forefront of that exploration. Ideas we area already batting around include “improv-everywhere” pop up public performances, residencies in schools, “house parties” for private groups, work with and performances for isolated communities such as assisted living homes, community centers, and prisons.

Eva Farrell, Langston Darby and Katherine Perry at a BI photoshoot

Eva Farrell, Langston Darby and Katherine Perry at a BI photoshoot

Jenn and the company will also continue to create “forms”. These are the defined sequences within which the ensemble creates theater from audience suggestions. The one Jenn has created for our debut is called “Click!”, and uses photographs the audience provides as inspiration for the actors. Our audiences will come to our shows to see new forms, and inspire our performances in new and interesting ways.

Short term? We hope to begin performing in Elkins Park regularly next month, and in Philadelphia at special events to be named later. And we hope to begin offering classes in Elkins Park beginning in March.

4) And lastly, what would you say to our readers to give them a little hint as to what to expect from our performance on the 27th?

A picture is worth a thousand words, and some awesome improv.

Bright Invention. Photoshoot by Sarah Bloom at

Bright Invention. Photoshoot by Sarah Bloom at