What would happen if you took an episode of Star Trek and completely chucked the script out the airlock? For the last five years, The Improvised Generation has been finding out. The group has been performing their loving, and completely unscripted, unoutlined (and unofficial) Trek tribute live on stages in Los Angeles.
With the challenges of COVID-19, this crew of performers decided to take their long-running show into cyberspace with The Improvised Generation: Onscreen. SYFY FANGRRLS sat down to discuss TIG’s new era with Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, and Aliza Pearl, who act, direct, and co-produce the show, and performer Lissette Jean-Marie, who is joining the cast for this online version.
Talk to me a little about the process of taking something as big as Star Trek and turning it into something that is very much your own thing?
Sara Mountjoy-Pepka: It's interesting to look at this from an outside perspective. Because on the one hand, I feel as if I know Star Trek so well (as in, it's in my bones, it's been there my entire life) and I've wanted to be in Starfleet my entire life, that half of creating this show was just executing what's already in my brain. I think a lot of the cast has felt that way from the beginning, and we started from a position of already-80%-there. We got to fine-tune from the start.
Lissette Jean-Maria: One thing that helps is that our show narrows in on Star Trek: The Next Generation. We are very specifically being inspired by those seven seasons of television. I think we make it our own just through the magic of improv. We know who our characters are, but every show you're witnessing six or seven people build a story together. So the result can't help but take on our own tastes and personalities.
SMP: The biggest step was creating brand new characters that were unique to us, but still lived in the world. We aim not to parody, and that requires characters that could have slid right in on TNG.
Aliza Pearl: Even though Star Trek is indeed a big thing, it has always felt personal for me... I so easily slip into the world when I'm watching an episode or a movie, so I've always imagined the stories that we don't see on screen. The other characters in that same world, the other places, and things happening. This show is kind of just an extension of our imaginings as fans. It's like improvised fanfic.
How's it felt so far taking what was a local stage show and turning it into an online series that's much more accessible for the internet?
AP: I was personally very glad that we went all-in to put our show online. I've been wanting to bring our show to more accessible spaces for a long time, and the internet makes our show super accessible.
SMP: Wow, it's been a lot of work! Creating backgrounds and music that are copyright free, training our cast and technical improvisers for Zoom performances, learning how to market both to our old and to-be-discovered audiences... definitely a shift! By the way, when I say "train the technical improvisers," full credit to them, because they actually taught themselves and us in the process. It's been rewarding, and I have truly enjoyed the performances, reconnecting with our cast, and audiences with people in basically the only safe way available to us right now.
As improvisers, what changes have you had to make to how you approach your performances for the new format?
SMP: The biggest thing is slowing down (which we should do anyway) to compensate for the small delays in Zoom transmission and to give our technical improviser time to "Zoom-cut" (live spotlight editing). And learning how to approach eyelines and angles when you aren't standing on stage with your fellow actors.
LJM: I personally have to do a bit more pre-show work getting myself energized for the show. In-person, being in a room with fellow cast members is all I need. I feed off other people's energies. Over Zoom, you are exerting more energy to make that connection with each other.
Lissette, you're a new member of the cast for this season, can you tell us a little about the process of creating a new character to join an existing cast?
LJM: It actually makes my job super easy and feels like cheating. The other cast members have so defined who their characters are that I was able to sit back and think what type of person and energy could both complement other characters and ruffle the feathers of others. I initially took some inspiration from Ensign Ro, but I also like to let myself discover who my character is in each show. Ensign Hermia Crispin has just graduated from the Academy, so just because she is the age she is, I get to play a person who is also discovering a little bit more about themselves. Like anyone right out of school, she thinks she knows exactly who she is and that she has most things figured out, and I very much enjoy when she's surprised and proven wrong.
Aliza, Improvised Generation started years prior to the return of Star Trek to television. This means that you were able to take on the role of Starfleet Captain Georgia Thompson as a Black woman prior to when the shows finally bridged that representation gap. How does it feel to have sort of been a step ahead of the show in regards to taking on the pips?
AP: I always hoped I wouldn't be the only Black female captain for too long. And as someone who creates a lot of different content, part of why I'm an actor, writer, and improviser is that I get to create what I want to see. So I was absolutely thrilled when Discovery premiered, with a Black female lead. And now we have Lower Decks, with a Black female lead and a Black female captain — it was about time for this to become the norm! Thankfully Star Trek didn't stop there with representation, and we're getting the debut of leading trans and non-binary characters in Season 3 of Discovery. And I have every reason to believe that Star Trek will continue to break barriers with representing communities who are largely missing from or misrepresented in media.
I've only seen a few of the live shows but they seemed fairly standalone and episodic, similar to Next Generation-era Trek. Do you think the online version will remain as such or will you venture into more serialized stories?
SMP: I'm not sure... we're improvising! We're like TNG in that our characters have had major shifts over time, especially some romances, and a few Part 1/Part 2 cliffhanger episodes... but those usually occur accidentally, because we've kicked off such a gripping first half and don't have time to finish it... so we end on a cliffhanger and pick up with the results on another day. This season, you're going to see some surprises that we've never done before... but serialization isn't the plan for the moment.
Do you feel like you'll be approaching the show differently given that it potentially will have a longer shelf-life in the form of VODs versus the fleeting nature of live theatre?
SMP: Our goal for this season was to re-introduce our new audience to our show, get them accustomed to what we do. And once they are, we're planning to experiment a lot. Stay tuned, we've got some unannounced plans for later on in November/December.
The aesthetic of the live show, including the uniform and even the title, is very Next Generation, but if you had to start the show over entirely with a different Trek era or show, which would you like to do? Whose uniforms do you wish you could switch to?
LJM: The Next Generation will always be closest to my heart. It's what I grew up watching and the only show me and my older sister both enjoyed. But when it comes to uniforms, Original Series would be a close second.
SMP: Oh, definitely Deep Space 9. In fact, one of our cast members, Arlo Sanders, suggested this idea for the online show initially. I'm definitely not shutting the door on that idea. DS9 is my other favorite series of Star Trek... I love the religion, the politics, the "wild west" feeling of Deep Space, the broadening of the world being a port, and the lean on serialization. DS9 is gritty and working class, in the trenches... and that really appeals to me and my personal sensibilities. It's not about the uniforms though... TNG uniforms for life.
AP: Ooooh, I don't know, but I can tell you right now I have plenty of pitches for Star Trek shows in general. You're giving me the idea that maybe I should try out some of those ideas as improv shows... Klingon palace drama, anyone?
New episodes of The Improvised Generation air every Saturday at 2PM PT on Twitch.tv/Outpost13.