New Orleans is a city known for many things, but not its comedy scene. That may soon change, thanks to a cultural renaissance that has made the city a magnet for young artistic talent. “You Don’t Know the Half of It,” a bimonthly show that pairs improvisers with actors, utilizing local playwrights and musicians, epitomizes this movement. The brainchild of New Orleans native and international theatre veteran Cecile Monteyne, this production, originated in January 2012, boasts a rotating roster of award-winning performers, writers, and improvisers.
What about “You Don’t Know the Half of It” draws such consistent talent? First time participant and Big Easy award-winning actor Jake Bartush explains, “It’s the ultimate acting challenge. There’s no way to know what to expect from the improvisers.” Actors memorize scripts commissioned by Monteyne for each performance, but the improvisers never see them. When the lights go up on a scene, the actors must respond with written lines to whatever inspiration the improviser provides. Essentially, no one, including Monteyne, knows what to expect from any given performance. This challenge, according to Bartush, “strips us of the ability to prepare, forcing us onstage without a comfort zone, and leaves us better for it.”
Monteyne, herself an acclaimed actress, confirms her purpose in creating this show was to force “actors to be improvisational in their choices, and improvisers to act.” Regarding the creative risks inherent in its construction, she says, “working on 'You Don't Know the Half of It' feels like putting together a big performance Rubik’s Cube, and when all those colors line up, it’s pretty euphoric.”
Sunday’s Rubik’s Cube featured improvised characters running the gamut from a possessed, cocaine smuggling nun to a child-eating monster named Gogelthorp. A full audience belly-laughed through the show, including during clever interludes from You Don’t Know the Band, composed of members from local bands including Sweet Crude and The Plus One Show. This unique project requires a remarkable level of collaboration among performers from a naturally competitive industry. As more artists have immigrated from major hubs to the newly-christened “Hollywood South,” a collegial spirit has elevated New Orleans’ live theatre and independent film scene. “Here,” Monteyne says, “you don’t have to choose one specialty. If you find the right people, you can try all those things that you’ve always wanted.”
Even if one of those things is pretending to be a child-eating monster named Gogelthorp.