European folklore includes a story called "Stone Soup," in which a wanderer creates meals for entire villages using basic ingredients that everybody possesses. The fable provides artistic inspiration for Daniel Horsey, Eric Mather and Robin Davies, who, as the improv collective Stone Soup, try to create something new -- and, they hope, wonderful -- out of random ingredients. The three occupy their daylight hours with running a small business, teaching math and "being British," respectively. But as the Sunday sun sets, their different sides emerge like those of a twisting transformer toy.
Don't laugh: Their focus is on drama, not comedy. The men met while attending some acting workshops together and agreed that the Denver improv scene was lacking. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as dramatic improv until I looked at the tapes of us trying to do comedy," says Horsey. "We just want to draw a serious theater crowd."
Serious theatergoers may have to suspend their pretentions, however, and just grab one of the twenty or so chairs -- some are orange and look like remnants from a Seventies junior high school; others appear to be castaways from corporate offices -- that make up the audience seating area at the Redshift Art Gallery. The set is composed entirely of one purple sheet, and the only prop is a set of folding chairs. Around 7:30, or when enough people have arrived, Horsey asks a member of the audience to submit a random word. At one recent performance, someone calls out "painting" (probably because it's the most visible item in the room). The trio then begins an Eleanor Rigby-like story of a young man who works in a pub and is required to clean beer and popcorn off the floor. A simple tale begins to reveal more and more as Horsey carefully paints a haunting picture of this manic-depressive trying to overcome the hopelessness of his life. Eventually, they incorporate the word "painting."
"All theater is really unscripted, because there's a writer who improvises it in his head and then writes it down," Davies says. "Then he passes it up to the middlemen, who are the actors, and then they do it. We're just doing all of that in front of you. If someone in the audience wrote all of that down, it would be a play, but we like the idea of doing it and then it's done."
Act Two continues with the same tone. Horsey plays an alcoholic who has just been fired from yet another job and is over at a friend's house trying to keep his sanity. Mather assumes the role of a girl who is pursued, quite against her will, by the drunk. All of this may seem too gloomy -- but that just makes the comedic blows, which the actors use sparingly, that much more funny. "When you see the actors on stage, in order for their material to work, they must really appear to be scared or surprised, whereas with us, when we look surprised, it's partly because we really are," says Horsey. "Sometimes I think, 'Whoa, what the hell was that?'"
"The show has to constantly be on the edge," adds Davies. "The worst moment is when I'm on stage and I feel complacent, like I know what's going to happen. But then one of these two comes on and does something completely different."
During the month of November, the men of Stone Soup will donate all of their proceeds to the Rape Assistance and Awareness Program, as part of an "Improv Against Hate" campaign started by the New York-based improv company The Brothers Grinn.