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Cult Classic Redux

The Improv-Minded 'Professor': New improvisation inspired by Doctor Who

Austin photo: Contributor_Michael Graupmann

By the time I meet Justin Davis, Michael Ferstenfeld and Andrew Pish, they’re already nerding out hard, discussing an especially mind-bending episode of the hit British sci-fi show, Doctor Who.

In this episode, an enigmatic group of oddly-named overlords are forcing the space-time continuum through a gigantic colander in order to strain out the universe’s bad elements. At least, that’s what I gather from their description.

It’s bizarre and otherworldly imagery like this that populates their fantastically imaginative improv show, The Professor, a loving homage to the long-running cult classic television show. Drawing their inspiration from the most memorable elements of the show, the improvised version is in the middle of a wildly popular run at The Institution Theater.

The Professor’s director and its two titular Professors sat down to discuss the development of the show’s current incarnation as well as some of the more hysterical challenges they’ve faced as interpreters of a show as weird as Doctor Who.

The show has recently seen a spike in popularity in the United States after nearly 50 years of airtime in the U.K. Worldwide fans of The Good Doctor are incredibly active on community discussion boards and are known for their exuberant support of imagined Doctor Who projects.

With an ever-expanding cosmology that encourages constant reinvention of the characters and the very nature of reality, it was a natural fit for improvisational theatre. It doesn’t hurt then that there’s a built-in audience of rabid fans clamoring for more exploration of their favorite sci-fi protagonist. After all, the show is written like a free-form improv exercise, Davis point out. 

“I think the reason Doctor Who got super popular in the last few years is because America’s become way more accepting of sci-fi after Lost and Fringe,” he hypothesizes. “It also helps that [the 10th actor to portray the Doctor] David Tennant is super handsome and all the girls love him.”

“Girls like [9th Doctor] Christopher Eccleston, too,” points out Ferstenfeld. “He’s got the whole bad boy with the leather jacket thing going on.”

“Yeah, but [11th and current actor] Matt Smith has that big chin and is younger and even handsomer,” adds Pish.

Clearly, everyone has their pick on who makes the best Doctor Who, which is part of the fun of the original series that translates well into the Davis-produced improv version as well. In the first three episodes of this run, Ferstenfeld is playing The Professor (“the 13th Professor”) and then handing over the reins to Pish (“the 14th Professor”) halfway through the run.

When I met with them, they were planning out that night’s upcoming episode when the potential “regeneration” sequence would take place. See, in the Doctor Who mythology, the omniscient Doctor doesn’t actually die, he just gets reincarnated in a new body. It’s better than a soap opera: it’s science!

Part of the fun for The Professor’s cast is the technical and scientific jargon they get to spout as confident experts on the universe. “One of the tenets of the show is that the Professor is always right,” explains Davis. “Anything he says goes and he will end up being able to explain his answer by the end. It’s part of the fun.”

“I was trying to cram so much information during the rehearsal process,” laughs Ferstenfeld. “I thought I needed to learn everything about space and history and the cosmos. But then we started having shows and I remembered it’s improv, so you couldn’t necessarily use any of it!”

Both Ferstenfeld and Pish remember watching older episodes of Doctor Who with their fathers as children. While Ferstenfeld nurtured his love of the show and regularly researches the current discussion topics in the fan community, Pish has only recently gotten back into the community due to this project.

“I’m okay with not knowing the whole mythology,” he states. “The newest doctor, Matt Smith, wasn’t really a fan of the series before he took the role, so I don’t feel obligated to know everything. The most important thing is being confident in the scene that is presented each night.”

Every night, the Professor and his Companion take on a new adventure after stepping through the door-shaped TARDIS (time machine/spaceship) and landing anywhere and anywhen. Whatever happens is up to the collective creativity of the cast, which also includes veteran local improvisers Emily Breedlove, Karen Jane DeWitt, Katie Thornton, Kayla Lane Freeman, Colin Bates, Clay Towery, Quinn Buckner, Lindsey Reeves.

Davis, meanwhile, takes a less direct role in each show. An experienced improviser himself, Davis is the director of the show and also its lighting operator, calling the beginning and ends of scenes. “This is actually my first show directing, but I think I want to do it more. I’d rather be behind the scenes and give others the spotlight and be the puppet master instead.”

Davis developed the concept for The Professor after following his life-long obsession with time travel after reading The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. So when it came time to submit ideas for upcoming performances at the Hideout, Davis went immediately to his first love.

“It was amazing how those first couple of shows turned out,” he says. “We still had some tweaking to do, but the turnout was incredible. It was almost all people from the Doctor Who community who heard about us from their meet up groups and discussion boards.”

That doesn’t mean those new to The Good Doctor won’t understand what’s going on. In fact, every show is self-contained and the inside references are kept to a minimum. As Ferstenfeld puts it, “the audiences really loves just hearing science terms that make it feel like there’s a rich mythology behind it all. It’s the confidence in committing to the language.”

Davis agrees, saying, “It’s not a parody or satire, it’s an homage. So we’re not trying to make jokes as much as subtext. People who have watched Doctor Who will get a little more of the references, but it’s definitely our goal to make this an enjoyable show for everyone.”

Due to the show’s overwhelming popularity, Davis and crew will remount the The Professor at Salvage Vanguard Theatre during the Gnap! Theater Projects’ spring performance season. Pish will no longer be in the role, but Ferstenfeld will reprise his scholarly approach to the beloved Professor.

The closely-knit cast will also begin pitching the project to the greater Doctor Who community, submitting to play at comedy festivals and comic book conventions across the nation. Davis has his eyes focused on San Diego’s 2012 Comic-Con and San Francisco’s 2012 WonderCon in particular.

In the meanwhile, you can catch the current cast of The Professor at The Institution Theater on Friday nights at 8 p.m. Pish has assumed the role of the “regenerated” Professor and will continue to adventure and explain the time-space cosmos until November 18th. (Fans of the Facebook page can receive a special password for $2.00 off admission.)

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