In Tony Trout’s experience, people who are good actors also turn out to be pretty good writers.
And that notion has held true in the nearly six years since Trout created “Are We Delicious?,” a Madison theater company where the actors are also the writers and they get only one week to write, rehearse and memorize their lines.
In a decision made through a series of emails, the troupe decided this year to stage a comedic adaption of “Puss in Boots.” It plays at the Bartell Theatre six more times through Jan. 27.
At first, none of the actor-writers were familiar with the story, where a cat helps a young man become a prince so that he can marry a princess.
“In the original story, the princess is really the prize,” said Trout, the play’s co-director. “What the main character wants is to obtain this princess and that’s old-fashioned at best, and actually sexist, and part of the patriarchy, and we wanted to work that in a different way.”
Matt Sloan, the other “Puss” co-director, said he initially knew there was a puss and he knew there were boots, but that’s about it. “This isn’t something that the whole world is familiar with,” he said.
When he read the story, he said he discovered how bizarre it is. He and Trout then came up with an outline and the cast spent the past week writing scenes for each other and rehearsing.
Because the cat is in every scene, they had to flesh out the other characters: the king, the princess, the ogre, and so on, Trout said. Then, they had to figure out what would happen in each scene.
“It’s a little like a math puzzle or a sudoku or something, you’ve got all these pieces and how are you going to line them all up?” Trout said.
Sketch comedy troupes aside, Trout doesn’t know of another theater company where all the performers are also the writers and the plays are done in such a short time.
The classic is “Saturday Night Live,” where the performers get their scripts and put on the show within the same week.
Historically, that was also true of many great shows, Trout said, citing the classic, 90-minute 1950s variety show, “Your Show of Shows,” which he said is probably the most similar to what they’re doing.
In most theater, a director chooses a script and then goes out to find actors who can perform the various roles. “We turn that completely upside down. What we have are talented people and then we sit around the circle and we think ‘What would be a great character for that person?’ “
Another difference between “Are We Delicious?” and sketch comedy groups is that comedy groups generally have the same people working together all the time, like a band. “We have a rotating cast,” Trout said.
“Also, they often have one or two main writers, and some who do not write at all. Sketch comedy groups also typically have a repertoire of great pieces they do again and again. Our pieces are always brand new.”
Some of Madison’s best known actors and musicians have performed “Are We Delicious?,” with a number of its writer-actors coming from the improv world. Sloan, who’s been with “Delicious” since its second show and has performed in or directed about 15 of its shows, is co-owner of Blame Society Films, which produces the popular online series he co-created, “Chad Vader,” about Darth’s younger, less successful brother.
Casem AbuLughod, who plays the Ogre in “Puss,” and has acted, written and helped direct many “Are We Delicious?” shows, performs with the local improv group Monkey Business Institute and also teaches there. He calls “Delicious” an opportunity to challenge himself in more than just one creative way.
Writing, he said, takes him out of his comfort zone and makes him push himself. “The process really creates a true ensemble because you are writing for each other, you are acting with each other, and you’re doing it in this short amount of time.”
The memorization process is easier because all the actors are there, while the piece is being created, plus each actor’s role is written specifically for them, taking into account their speech patterns and how they like to communicate, he said.
Amber McReynolds, another “Puss” cast member, has studied improvisation and sketch writing with the Monkey Business Institute and also with a New York City group. This will be her sixth “Delicious” production, if you include a radio podcast.
She likes that the writer-actors create the characters based on who they already are and therefore can play to each other’s strengths.
But practically, as an assistant city attorney, McReynolds likes that everything happens in one week, so it can fit into a busy life. “It’s hard for me to fit a full-length production with eight to ten weeks of rehearsal into my schedule.”
Then there’s the combination of acting and writing. She doesn’t know of any other similar opportunity in Madison. “It really lets you put on two different hats within a short period of time.”
“Are We Delicious?” also gets actors from Forward Theater Company, Madison Theater Guild, Strollers and Broom Street Theater.
The group doesn’t really have a home base. They’ve performed at the Barrymore, Broom Street Theater, the High Noon Saloon and the Brink Lounge. They’ve also performed at smaller local clubs, including the Frequency and the former Inferno.
But about half of the group’s performances are at the Bartell, where they have a good relationship with the theater companies that run the theater as a cooperative.
“Puss in Boots” is actually a partnership with Madison Theater Guild, which invited the group to use their theater. Typically “Delicious” will perform right on the set for whatever play is being staged at the Bartell, sometimes even writing pieces to fit the set.
This is the first time the group has rented out a theater and have paid the whole rent. That means they get their name on the marquee and their poster in the window.
None of the cast members take time off their regular jobs to concentrate on “Delicious.” Trout laughs at the suggestion.
Instead, they restrict themselves to about three hours for each of the seven days.
“The greatest accomplishment from the whole six years is that we’ve put on a lot of great shows and we’ve all had a good time,” Trout said. “No one has ever quit. We’ve never gotten to a day where we all agree we can’t do this. It’s very challenging, but it’s also exhilarating.”