Improv is for losers. It’s the lamest form of comedy. It even incorporates mime, the cringiest of performance art forms. No bloody thanks.
This was my attitude towards improv before I saw the Bear Pack. Now, I’m a convert. Of the most zealous kind. Let me slow my hot little breaths of excitement and evangelise – the Bear Pack is the most joyfully exhilarating, spiritually euphoric, and creatively hilarious comedy show I have ever seen. It’s like if your imagination had an hour-long orgasm. And because improv is improv, every show is different. I’ve seen the Bear Pack five times, and the first show I saw was only in 2019 (which I reluctantly went to on a Bumble date). I hope to see many more. I must.
I promise, go just once and you will also join the cult. Steen Raskopoulos (who you may recognise in a cameo role in Katherine Ryan’s Netflix series The Duchess) and Carlo Ritchie (a writer for Play School with Honours in Linguistics) are the brothers-in-anarchy who brought me into the light. Springboarding from a few audience suggestions, these quick-witted conjurers spin a whole crazy universe and demented yarn into being, leaping between characters and pirouetting between scenes – they bring us equine uprisings and Poseidon showdowns, mountain prophecies and sibling treacheries, troll evictions and roller derby reunions. It’s epically silly.
That’s not to say the universe they’ve created is stable. Not at all. The whole thing wobbles with a wild and volatile drunkenness, at any moment, you feel everything could pitch into chaos. Yet every time it looks like the story could be careening into a cul de sac, the duo summon up a magic door and throw us into the next madcap plot twist. This salvation from the death of their created world feels like a miracle, and one they work a hundred times over.
Off to the side of the stage, the very talented Ange Lavoipierre (also a comedian) live scores the story with improvisational cello. It adds a whole other dimension of absurd drama to the act.
Both Raskopoulos and Ritchie are fellow Improv Theatre Sydney directors and company co-founders. They are, in other words, top-tier craftsmen. Becoming friends at university and performing alongside each other for over a decade, they’re able to read each other like they’re telepathically linked, calibrating tension and pacing on the fly, whipping out quips off the cuff. Clearly, given how much we see them struggling not to laugh, they find each other hilarious too.
It’s as though they never stopped playing the kid’s game of play-pretend, and just got better and better at it over time. Only, their play has a fundamental principle of laughter, and it’s a game they’ve gone professional to share.
On their last Sydney Comedy Festival show (sold out at the Factory Theatre), they performed their infamous ‘drunk show’. It was a little different this time – usually both Raskopoulos and Ritchie are wasted on stage, but because of a Covid close contact the week before, it was just Raskopoulos downing the shots. Still, add alcohol to anarchy and we were in for a very loose and riotous night. (Most memorable: drunk Steen as a cow on the lam asking why a paddock isn’t called ‘greeny greeny green land’.)
In capable hands, there can be such joy in the unscripted, when everyone in the room has no idea what will happen next. The cult of the Bear Pack has grown since the first shows in 2011, with clued-up fans selling out shows at the Sydney, Melbourne and Edinburgh comedy festivals. Their current festival run may be over, but when the Bear Pack returns to Sydney, cancel all my plans and throw me into their superb nonsense once again. Reader, I’ll see you there.