What do male podcasts, meditation, and rectal exams all have in common? These were the topics on the minds of San Francisco theatergoers, which on Feb. 3, included two dozen USF performing arts students in the audience, thanks to a partnership with the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). “Freestyle Love Supreme,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop, comedy, improvisation show, began its Broadway national tour in San Francisco’s Geary Theater.
The magic of the show, creators say, is the fact that it is all generated on the spot. A group of eight performers, including a two-time GRAMMY nominee and a number of seasoned Broadway actors, turn audience suggestions into freestyle, improv skits. Every aspect of the show—from the performance, to the instrumentation, to the lighting design—is built in the moment, making it a unique audience-specific experience each night.
Performers ask audience members for action verbs, things they love, things they hate, what they did that day, and word associations. The audience responses then make up the content of their show, which becomes a freestyle rap skit of, say, the day of a doctor in the audience who performed a rectal exam that morning. While many of these audience suggestions can be rather playful, like “wet socks,” others are more profound. One response became a freestyle song on the importance of meditation.
The performances display the partnership between hip-hop and more traditional modes of theater, showing how combining the two art forms can increase the complexity of both.
The performing arts and social justice (PASJ) department acquired the tickets, which retail for up to $135, from Salesforce and former PASJ professor Natalie Greene. Christine Young, assistant professor in the PASJ department, said that she received a call from Greene last year. Greene, the current school programs manager at ACT, told her that thanks to a large donation from Salesforce, USF would be considered a community partner and receive free student tickets to “Freestyle Love Supreme.” USF immediately accepted, as “ACT is the flagship theater institution in San Francisco,” Young said.
“It’s always been in PASJ’s interest to get students in the theater as much as possible,” Young said. “The more theater you see, the more you learn.”
According to students, PASJ’s hopes were met. Mari Quinton, a second-year PASJ major, was “astonished” by the manner in which audience suggestions became the fabric of the show in real time.
When the performers asked the audience for something they disliked, Quinton had an immediate answer: male podcasts. Her suggestion became a running joke throughout the show, once again tying students into the world the performers worked to create. “I got so giddy every time I heard them mention my suggestion,” she said. “I felt really accomplished.”
This excitement was not confined to Quinton but spread throughout the group. Maggs Zuniga, a freshman PASJ major, found that the performers were much more connected to the audience than they had anticipated, a revelation which came about in part from Quinton’s “male podcasts” contribution.
“I really enjoyed hearing my classmates’ suggestion as a recurring joke,” said Zuniga. Learning how successful the interactive format was for the show, Zuniga is inspired to use similar methodologies in their own work. “I haven’t had experience seeing a successful audience interactive show (prior to “Freestyle Love Supreme”), which is something I want to execute in my future pieces,” they said.
Zuniga will begin incorporating what they learned into their work as a creator of PASJ’s spring show slated to open in April. “We are wanting to create something that involves the audience in a way that is new,” they said. “So, getting to see the way that these performers have structured improv is helpful.”
A few students enjoyed watching “Freestyle Love Supreme” so much that this was their second time attending a performance in the past month, like second-year PASJ major Joely Kaatz. “No two audiences have the same experience,” she said. “I went back for a second time because it was amazing to see what words they were going to use. I could tell that the artists were having a lot of fun onstage which makes the viewing experience really fun.”
For Quinton this was her second time seeing the performance because she “fell in love with the show.” Though she knew the format, she enjoyed seeing different cast members in a new variation of the show.
One of the performers, Bay Area rapper Andrew Bancrof, noted in a statement to ACT how important the show is as audiences move out of the COVID-19 pandemic.“The past two years have been incredibly trying for people,” he said. “We’ve been stuck in an echo chamber of isolation and bad news.”
Things have been incredibly trying for the theater community particularly. “The theater hasn’t really come back in San Francisco,” Young noted. “There are some shows, but there aren’t very many; there are still a lot of restrictions, and they are really expensive.”
“While we can’t change those headlines, we can create an hour and a half of true connection,” Bancroft said. “Our show is a moment to truly listen to each other and turn our experiences into music, laughter, and even tears.”
PASJ will offer tickets to students again on 2/10, before the show closes on 2/13, traveling to Seattle.
Megan Robertson, a second-year media studies and performing arts & social justice double major, is one of the Foghorn’s general assignment reporters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.