The Really Big Shew
Craig began class in a state of attrition. He seemed to have spent the previous evening hating himself for the way that he came off on Wednesday and operated with a tenderness that bordered on the unnatural (for him).
“You guys are all poets, artists and geniuses,” he said. “I have full confidence in you tonight and I love you as a group together. Whatever you do it will fucking rule.”
We played around with some ideas and experienced some other forms and settled on an interesting little piece Craig called the Typewriter. It starts with an organic opening and the cast splits to one side. As each scene is played out and edited, the people who participate in the scene (characters, scene support, tag outs, walk-ons, etc.) run to the other side of the stage and “sit out” until everyone has been in a scene. After the last people finish their scene a group game is initiated and everybody resets for the next round. It was simple and fun and it assured that everybody got at least one scene in where they were contributing. It seemed the fairest thing for an intensive performance.
Kevin showed up wearing a nicely rounded-off mustache. He’d initiated an idea that all the men were to grow mustaches for the performance and ended up being the only one who did it. I’d planned to shave as well but hadn’t showered yet. Everybody else backed out on the idea, though, so Kevin decided to keep the ‘stache for the show and be the only one doing it so I kept my beard intact.
People seemed preoccupied all day long with the idea of the show that night but I couldn’t bear to really think of the concept. I just continued to recite to myself to have fun. Just have fun. I had a grilled cheese and fries at Salt and Pepper for lunch and just kept myself in a Zen zone. I went back to Eric’s after class and turned on Buxton while I showered and jammed my favorite songs. There was no way that I was going to let this night become anything but a blast.
Through some weird scheduling mishaps our performance time was changed to first, which meant that Eric and Lauren and Aaron could no longer come see it. The only people in the crowd were intensive students and strangers. I think I preferred that.
“It’s awesome that we’re going first,” Craig said. “We won’t get self-conscious after seeing other people’s shows and we’ll be able to start partying first.”
I showed up to the theater at 6:30 and waved at the cute bartender I talked to at the Cabaret the week before. She smiled back and that released any lingering tension about the energy in the room. My mind was calmer than it had been in a long time. It was the kind of calm you realize might be a defense mechanism against an uncontrollable losing of your cool, but I’d take it. The moment of truth was fast approaching.
We warmed up in the green room and began the waiting game. People filed in, bustling and conversing. I went pee to relieve any lingering nervous stress and started a chain of last-minute bathroom usage. I found myself thinking back to the first time I got on stage to do improv, (almost exactly) a year and nine months ago, and how I kept shaking my hands and singing songs to warm up with. I’d been gripped pretty hard with fear at the time and I didn’t yet remember what to do with it.
I think back a lot to when I competed in UIL One-Act my senior year of high school. It was my first starring role and it was in competition against other schools. As we placed ourselves and before the curtain rose I had a handkerchief covering my face and I could see it shake with the beating of my heart. I remember in that moment being alive. I’d never felt like that ever again on stage or screen. When I improvised I felt that way a few times, or so I thought. Considering what I’ve learned now about fear and how I was circumventing it, I understand what Kurosawa truly meant when he said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”
Charna took the stage and quieted the audience. Her introduction was appropriately flattering.
“The basic thing about improvisation is to be a risk taker,” she said. “We have a program that lasts for a year and then people get on stage to perform. These kids came from all over the world and in five weeks they are putting themselves out in front of you. I think that’s really being a risk taker.”
Behind the stage we stood, spread out in a line due to the cramped quarters. We looked each other in the eyes and connected, nodded. I took a deep breath and smiled.
“Without further ado, let’s get to the first of (I think) eight troupes tonight. I present you now with POUND TOWN!”
The first thing I saw when I hit the stage was one of Charna’s dogs, the black one that always sat outside the 3rd Beat Room, scooting across the audience to be with her master. Ten jokes about the dog ran through my head but instead I looked out and really took the audience in. The place was packed. Caitlin was sitting in the front row already laughing. Chris was behind me to the right repeating “YEAH!” as loudly as possible. Kevin clasped his hands and stepped forward.
“Can we please get a one word suggestion of anything at all?”
“I heard pheasant, thank you.”
We all took to holding rifles aimed at the air and firing them indiscriminately.
KEVIN: It’s pheasant season in Oregon!
CRIS: Here we come to mimic what we used to do in the wild, but we’re civilized now.
DAVE: This is how we express how civilized we are.
ALICE: At one point we used to have to do this to survive, but now it is merely fun.
JAVIER: It’s a LOT of fun!
KEVIN: We have a license to do this, so…
CHRIS: We can!
CHARIS: It’s okay.
ROB: The government say it’s fine.
MATT: Governments regulate our fun.
CRIS: And governments are right for doing it!
CHARIS: Yeah, we tell the government what to do, so…
JAVIER: The government’s us, so it’s kind of like us telling us what to do.
JANIE: That’s why everyone should vote!
DAVE: I vote for us!
ALL: YEAH! FOR US! FOR US! FOR US! *firing off rifles in salute*
We broke to stage right to general applause and we were off. We had our themes firmly in place. Government control, being forced to do things for survival, sport, competition, oppression, rebellion. Everything worked its way in. We had a spelling bee coach haunted by the ghost of his old coach who then died and haunted his student. Dan made a bomb to blow up the government. Dave and Charis derailed my presentation at work by preparing me a salad that I couldn’t resist. Deborah tried to force Javier to kill his pet duck Mr. Quackers (Rob). Ken was a chili cook-off champion that gloated over his trophy case. One by one we attacked every theme and everyone got to play one or two extremely meaty characters. Our games were playful. We missed edit points a few times and there were some scenes that definitely hit sour notes, but in general we rocked it. I wasn’t sure that it showcased five weeks of intense study, but I had fun. Realistically, that’s all I needed.
The lights faded away as all 14 of us stood on stage humming the American national anthem and when they came back on I suddenly realized I’d done the thing I came to do. Five weeks of training and it just culminated. As we took our bow and I thought about that, I felt my face grin almost as wide as the night I graduated from the New Movement when I got a room of 150 Austinites to chant “Houston.”
We went out back and I ran into Aaron’s group standing with Miles Stroth preparing for their show. Craig gave us some simple notes and congratulated us on a job well done. We put our hands in the middle one final time and screamed our name to the heavens in victory. We knew then that we’d probably never exist again as a whole but that didn’t matter. Tonight we were Pound Town and we were legendary.
I walked back in and settled next to Jet Eveleth to watch Marissa’s group go up. I relaxed fairly quickly when I deduced that they weren’t doing as well as we did. At one point it got super weird when they threw a darkly comical jab at the Aurora shooting and tensed up the audience. It created a strange recurring character of a scary hitman played by the scariest-looking guy in the troupe. It didn’t go somewhere good, for sure.
Aaron’s group went up next so I took the front row to watch them pull off the Deconstruction as taught by Miles. It was interesting to be sure but the root scene (involving Australians Tane and Kimberly) was a clinic in shitty scene work. They argued about films and never built a real relationship. The rest of the crew pulled out what they could and earned some good responses. Aaron ended up hardly playing and I felt kind of bad for him as he tried his best to work through the piece while struggling not to judge it.
I watched the next group (Senja the Finnish girl was in it) and then walked over to Salt and Pepper for some dinner. Chris, Javier and Janie were there with Janie’s roommates and her brother so we all talked in a daze of just-completedness. After the food I went back over to catch the last few groups. I’m biased of course, but from what I saw I think we ended up being the ones that had the best-received show. I wasn’t interested in thinking about that, though, so I did my best to relax as the last group, Nick and Karen’s, finished up their set.
A party then broke loose that ripped apart much of my final night expectations. We danced and drank and talked and smiled. I was looking at this wall next to the bar that had a lot of pictures and articles of Del Close and someone came up and told me his ashes were sitting inside the book on the shelf above them. I stood and contemplated the idea that I’d spent the past five weeks and performed in the same room as the burned corpse of the father of modern improvisation, then the idea got too strange and I walked back to some other mad revelry.
I saw Miles standing on the sides talking to Jason so I joined the discussion. It’s weird to find myself a fanboy. I didn’t want to be but I had this impending sense that I would never see this guy again who had so much to say about improv and no problem saying it to anyone who’d listen. I showed a little too much eagerness to learn, though, and he pinned me to the wall for it.
“Fuck you! You’re trying to rape me!” he accused. “I believe this guy’s sincere but you just want to rape me!”
I was thrown and tried to recover but I realized he was a bit right so I just said a dumb quip and left the conversation. Aaron later told me that he took them all out to eat and took stabs at every one of them in similar fashion. I guess you don’t become one of the world’s best improvisers by not being observant.
We closed out the night in the Del Close Theater, talking about plans to come to everyone’s cities for festivals and other great ideas. I guess I should’ve felt some sense of weight lifted off my shoulders, of being done with my hard labors and now truly capable of some rest, but I didn’t. I felt more weighted, in fact, like this was the start of something even bigger and more unknown that I may or may not be prepared for. For that night, though, I just tried to drink and have fun. I have all of next week to think about how to change the world.
After 2am we walked out to a cold hard rain that was beating us down in noir fashion. We played in the streets like mad improvisers do, running from awning to awning. Jason and some people started out to Pick Me Up so I tagged along and ate breakfast enthusiastically. We spoke stupidly to crack ourselves up and existed at the height of dumb drowned drunken wit. When I received pancakes Jason was confused because I “didn’t order any,” to which I replied that the “pancakes were implied.”
We paid our tabs and said our goodbyes and I walked home smiling. The weight never left me but it seemed a friend now, a strangely fitting shirt I might get used to wearing and might become my favorite. Again, I thought, all of those thoughts were for the following week when I found myself in Houston wondering what comes next. I slipped up the stairs and peeled off my soaked clothing and climbed under my sleeping bag and dozed off to drunken dream.