Behind the Bear Pack

Natassia Chrysanthos spoke to USyd alum Steen Raskopoulos about improvisational comedy and his success in the comedy scene

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The prospect of performing a completely improvised hour-long play and filling it with humor, interesting characters and a strong plotline seems a near impossible feat. Such is the craft of Sydney comedy duo Steen Raskopoulos and Carlo Richie, Sydney Uni grads whose two-man troupe The Bear Pack has become something of a local legend since they started performing together four years ago.

In a short amount of time, the Bear Pack has gone from humble beginnings at Hermann’s Bar to an international act, performing a string of successful shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and selling out on most nights. “After the first few shows word of mouth kind of spread and everyone was on board, it was great,” Steen says. “The improv troupes and a lot of the other sketch performers hadn’t seen anything like it before and everyone was really positive about it and they want us to come back and do more shows in the UK.”

The Bear Pack’s signature shtick is the Yarn: their own style of improv where two words are taken from audience volunteers at the beginning of the show – one word is a location and the other will be from an obscure category of Carlo’s choice – and from these prompts Carlo and Steen will jump into character and improvise a 55-minute play.

“We’ll get two characters, one who will tell a story within that world, and we’ll then cut away and perform the actual story itself, constantly cutting back and forth between two stories until they’re both resolved in a nice beautiful bell at the end,” Steen says. “It’s very narrative based, and essentially you have to sustain a character for an hour and sustain the story for an hour, whereas in a lot of other forms of improv and Theatresports the scene’s over in a few minutes.”

Locations could range from a prison or farm to an alien universe, while the stories may traverse nations, cultures and time periods. “In Edinburgh we did a children’s birthday party where I played a very good clown who lost custody of his kid,” Steen says, “we told a very sweet tale, which was pretty fun.”

Having performed together for many years, the pair now derives a lot of their fun on stage from their ability to challenge and surprise one another. “We’re trying to force the other person to sing or tell a poem or get them out of their comfort zone by playing a character they wouldn’t normally play,” Steen says. “I think we’ve gotten to a stage now where we can do it and still have a really nice succinct story.”

The ease with which they perform would suggest that a lot of preparation has gone into crafting a well-oiled machine prepared to bend to the whims of the crowd and engage the audience’s enthusiasm for a full hour. This is not the case, however. “There’s no-one else in the world that I have that kind of on stage connection with,” Steen says. “We’ve never rehearsed and we never warm up at all. That’s like a ritual of ours, we never warm up. We just go on stage and we do it.”

They’ll be getting back on stage in Sydney at the Enmore Theatre next Saturday night (October 1st) for their biggest show yet. “It’s going to be for a great cause,” Steen says, “and a lot of my friends are coming to perform so it’s going to be a lot of fun.” Joining them will be Hamish Blake of Hamish & Andy fame, Susie Yousef, Bridie Connell and Tom Walker from Whose Line Is It Anyway, National Theatresports champions Kate Coates and Edan Lacey, as well as others. They’ll all come together to perform an improvised Soap Opera for the first half of the show, and the Bear Pack will take to the stage for a yarn in the second half.

Next Saturday’s show will be dedicated to Elliot Miller, who performed with the Bear Pack on many occasions, and all proceeds will go towards raising money for children with cancer.