Las Vegas, sometime in the 1960s. A mysterious casino boss is wagering people’s destinies, possibly even the fate of the universe itself—threatening the very fabric of space and time. The only thing that stands between him and universal destruction is a time-traveling adventurer and his human sidekick…
No, this isn’t a spoiler for the upcoming series of Doctor Who. Nor is it an Inspector Spacetime segment. This was the plot of a recent performance of The Professor—a long-form improv show that’s the brainchild of improvisor and director Justin Davis, currently presented by Gnap! Theatre Projects at Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theatre and running through April 21. And as you might guess, it’s inspired by the popular, long-running adventures of a certain mad man in a blue box.
Davis initially brought The Professor to the stage for a handful of shows at The Hideout theatre in Austin, assembling a cast with a call on his Facebook page. The success of these shows based on word-of-mouth alone led to a six-week run at the Institution and to the current run at Salvage Vanguard. The famous time-travel adventurer concept appears to have been catnip to Austin’s improv audiences. “It’s a pretty simple format,” says Davis. “Open with a scene that sets the world and plot of the show, cut to the fully-animated credit sequence for the show, lights up and the next scene has the first appearance of the Professor and his (or her) companion as they walk through the [time machine] door. They discover the world, and the conflict from [an] earlier story is improvised from there, there’s a heightening of stakes/danger, and then we end with the Professor saving the day. Usually. Like Doctor Who, sometimes things don’t always work out and people die.”
The show is completely improvised from top to bottom, something that Davis and the other performers make a point of reminding the audience. “We still have people asking us what episode of Doctor Who we’re doing next,” he says. The only element planned in advance is the designation of which actor plays the Professor and which actor plays his companion, and the companion varies from night to night.
Actor Peter Rogers recently wrapped up a successful three-show run as the Professor, and after seeing his last show as the Professor, I talked to him about what it was like for relative newcomer to Doctor Who to step into the shoes of a Doctor-like character.
Full disclosure: Peter and I have known each other since we were freshmen in college; he asked me for a few tips and viewing suggestions in the lead-up to The Professor, and the production is also borrowing my toy sonic screwdrivers for the actors to use as desired. (Third, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctor models, if you must know—they declined the Master’s laser screwdriver.)
Before being cast as the Professor, Rogers had only seen the Eccleston season of Doctor Who. “And, when I was a kid, precisely one scene from ‘City of Death’,” he says, “which wound up being a big spoiler for when I finally got around to seeing ‘City of Death’.” In the two months between his casting in mid-January and his opening night as the Professor, he proceeded to mainline the entirety of the new series of Doctor Who to date, along with the Tom Baker serial “City of Death” and Peter Davison’s regeneration serial “The Caves of Androzani.”
What key characteristics of the Doctor and of Doctor Who did Rogers take away from this kind of marathon viewing over such a short period of time? “The most important thing I wanted to incorporate was the sense of happy wonder that 9, 10, and 11 have,” he says. “I wanted to basically do the opposite of my usual jaded, irritable affect. To reference the show you saw, me-as-me might have been annoyed dealing with a clunky, mid-60s radio. Me-as-Professor: ‘It’s got TUBES!’”
Rogers’s version of the Professor sported a hot-pink dress shirt, a slightly baggy short overcoat, and a daisy in his lapel. “Snazzy-ish clothes, but he can’t be bothered to put them together quite right. And a flower, because why not,” he says. “I was hoping I could give him a kind of surface-level breeziness that belied just how invested he inevitably got in whatever he was fighting to save.”
And what about the show Doctor Who itself? “I was really impressed by the consistency of structure,” he says. “And how much that had in common with horror, in most cases. We see the status quo for some world (however bizarre, it’s that world’s status quo). Then something kind of ominous happens. You can usually count on a secondary-character death early on, sacrificed to some monster. It becomes a bigger and bigger threat — it’s usually lurking in the shadows, and we only get the reveal late in the show. Then it’s down to Our Hero to do something really clever, hopefully something set up earlier in the show, to best the beastie (and ideally, the threat-heightening gets big enough to threaten the whole world/universe/multiverse/what-have-you).”
The very consistent format of a Doctor Who-type show lends itself well to improv, although as Rogers points out, one has to fight the inclination to be purely plot-driven. “An improvisor’s instinct is to never let the plot stall out,” he says. “So you’ll see improvisors, as soon as they know the next event that should happen, just immediately jump to that.” The challenge, he says, is to balance the plot drive with the freedom to create and explore a science-fiction world, while at the same time not accidentally slipping into “abstract tone poem that only superficially resembles Doctor Who,” as he put it.
The current Professor troupe has risen to the challenge admirably. The show I saw was fast-paced and energetic, and while the stakes of the plot may have been occasionally uncertain, the performers were all skilled enough to draw all the disparate threads together by the end. Rogers’s first show ended up requiring a two-minute expository speech to explain a spaceship that among several things, was abducting aliens, rewriting their history, and harboring a planet-eating space monster. “It got sustained applause,” he notes, pleased. “So that’s been something that’s kind of a natural outgrowth of improvising in this format, as far as we can tell. Explore, explore, explore, explore—okay, time to sort out what the hell is going on.”
Longtime Who fans will note that The Professor has a bit more of a new-series vibe—while the director and some performers do have a background with the classic series, Rogers notes that some of the cast members were actually largely unfamiliar with Doctor Who before getting cast in The Professor—though of course, they’ve since caught up on the new series at least. The performance I saw included a riddle-speaking femme fatale and (slightly cheeky, I thought) references to the Professor’s upcoming “darkest hour.” The Professor’s reverence and affection for all of the show to which it pays homage comes through loud and clear, and the audience clearly responds, both longtime fans and newcomers alike.
Having played out his Professor’s demise and transformation into a new version of himself, Rogers remains part of the ensemble, and will put in at least one appearance as a companion. Of his Professor’s last show, he says, “We did most of what we set out to do there. We still had a universe-threatening thing, a death scene, and Mike [Ferstenfeld, the next Professor] coming out in comically-oversized clothing.” The current run will see one more incarnation of the Professor after Ferstenfeld, and Davis is optimistic about the show’s future. “We’ll likely find more shows to do here in Austin, but we’re also applying to improv festivals around the country. My hope is that we can eventually go to big conventions like San Diego Comic Con to put on shows there. We’ve all grown really close to each other in this cast and the show seems almost endless with possibilities.”