Four Humors Theater’s “We Gotta Cheer Up Gary” centers on a strange bureaucratic social service in charge of cheering people up in one-on-one appointments.
In the performance, which opens Friday at the Southern Theater, “Cheerologists” have to scramble and try to cheer up everybody in the theater at once.
“The story is very simple,” cast member Mike Fotis said. “The idea is it’s impossible to say what’s funny to everybody and what cheers everybody up. For me, [the show] looks at audience dynamics, how performers and audiences work together.”
Fotis, Jason Ballweber, Dario Tangelson and Ryan Lear created the show together. They all play the “Cheerologists” who try to find as many ways to cheer up the audience as possible.
Four Humors Theater is a local theater group created in 2005 that focuses on theatrical storytelling through comedy.
Ballweber and Lear are two of the core company members of Four Humors Theater, while director Tangelson and Fotis came on as collaborators.
While silly on the surface, “We Gotta Cheer Up Gary” also examines the elements of comedy: what makes certain things funny and why some people laugh at some things while others don’t.
Because comedy and laughter come from a deeply personal place, the artists had long discussions about the nature of comedy and what puts people in good moods.
“We really thought about what it is that we all share in common,” Tangelson said. “Which was that we all wanted to have fun and laugh and make people laugh. So we came up with the idea of ‘Cheering Up Gary’ as a way to be forced to have fun all the time.”
This process of devising is one of the hallmarks of Four Humors. All of their shows start with a concept that the members haven’t seen explored in live theater.
“It was a lot of brainstorming,” Fotis said. “Sitting down and talking about what we think is funny, how we react to audiences, how audiences react to us. It was fun because it was a real discussion about how comedy works and your role in it as a performer.”
Though “We Gotta Cheer Up Gary” is entirely scripted, there are a few improvised moments in the show. The performers are always listening to the audience and playing off them.
“It’s more in the style of a commedia [dell’arte] show, where if something is working very well, we’re going to dwell on it and extend it,” Ballweber, Four Humors’ artistic director, said. “There’s a lot of talking to the audience, and so if they’re a particularly playful audience, we’ll play back.”
In addition to performing in the show, Tangelson acted as the show’s director.
“It’s more a matter of helping them review what they did and try to put some order to the conversation,” Tangelson said. “When you have such good performers, you try to get out of the way as much as possible.”
The group first performed the show last year at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, and now they’re bringing it to Minneapolis.
For them, getting it in front of that first audience was key in the development of the act. In a show that plays so much with audience-performer dynamic, they learned a lot about what did and didn’t work when faced with actual people.
“The audience plays a very key role in the show, providing a nervous energy and raising the stakes of what we need to do,” Lear said. “They are all there in the space with us, and we are constantly trying to make all of them happy all the time. And, as everyone knows, you can’t make everyone happy all the time, so we’re basically setting ourselves up for failure.”
Since the relationship between performers and audience is vital in this piece, every performance relies on having an engaged audience.
“[The show] opens up interesting conversations — why do we need to be cheered up all the time? Is it possible to be cheered up all the time? Is that too much of an expectation?” Tangelson said. “So after the initial thinking, where we all thought this show was a great vehicle for us to have fun, then we started seeing the ramifications of it.”