This is my entry for Week Nine of The Real LJ Idol competition, where the topic is "Unprepared." I'll post an update about voting later in the week. If you haven't already, you may want to join therealljidol, since some voting will be restricted to community members. Again, I really appreciate all the support so far!
Somebody in the audience said, "Fantasy Island," and before I knew it, I was on my knees, channeling Hervé Villechaize. I produced an invisible grass skirt and a plunger for our Fantasy Island client, and later on, I was running on my knees across the stage, chasing an invisible greased pig, thanks to my scene partners. Then, because of the demands of the improvisational game, we reenacted the scene in 45 seconds, then in 20.
This might not have been so difficult if the stage weren't covered in AstroTurf.
We raced through the scene faster and faster, as the audience roared. Even though I would bear ugly bruises on my knees for weeks afterward, in that moment, it was worth it.
This was the final show for my Advanced Improv class at ComedySportz in Philadelphia, whose permanent troupe gives weekly performances in a competitive format, with two teams facing off in a variety of improv games, much like on the popular show, Whose Line is It Anyway?
I'd been fascinated with improv since learning that many of my favorite comic actors came from an improv background. After interviewing the Second City touring group (which in those days included Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris) for my college radio station, I wrote in my journal that I knew what I was doing after graduation. All I needed to decide, I wrote, was whether to move to Chicago or Toronto, the two cities where Second City offered improv classes and gave performances.
When graduation came, I didn't go. Fear held me back. The guy I was with at the time, Leechboy (who sucked out my personality in an effort to remake me in his own anal-retentive image), didn't want to move to a big city. I was afraid of dumping him; afraid of moving to a city alone. So my life took a different pathway. Sometimes I wondered idly what would have happened, had I moved to Chicago and auditioned for Second City. By now, I could have been Tina Fey's buddy, be writing for top-rated television shows. Then again, maybe I would have discovered I was in over my head and scurried like a scared country mouse back to Central PA. But the truth is, I never tried.
Fifteen years later, I learned about the ComedySportz classes and dared myself to take one, partly because I was curious but mostly because I wanted to finally prove to myself that I could do it.
The first week of the beginning class was pretty tame, as our instructor explained basic principles of improv, such as reacting spontaneously, getting out of your own head, not bringing any preconceived notions to the stage. In other words, arriving on the stage unprepared. He led us through some group activities and ice-breaking games, and my fellow classmates and I laughed as we fumbled through them together.
The second week, we played some more challenging games, where we paired up, expected to act and react quickly. I had trouble "getting out of my head" and embracing the moment. My crucible was the deceptively difficult word-association game, Firing Line. Two rows of people pass each other, and as each new pair meets, one says a word and the other says the first word that comes to her mind. Sounds easy, right? Except I couldn't stop second-guessing myself. I didn't want to spit out the obvious, was worried that my words would sound weird or inappropriate, would expose some inner pathology.
Worse, I simply couldn't keep the word "elephant" out of my mind. It became my panic word. No matter what someone said "chair," "purple," "arbitrary" if nothing popped into my head, I'd spit out "elephant," then shrug and move along. This only got worse, of course, when I told myself, "Stop thinking of elephants!" That night, on the drive home, I felt as if I'd been stampeded by a herd of... well, you know. But I told myself that I had to go back and give it another chance. After all, other people had faltered, too.
Then, Bob Dylan came to my rescue. The next week, I was driving to the Adrienne Theater, listening to Dylan's greatest hits collection. I'd removed my sweatshirt, because it seemed that every week in class, I got huge flop-sweat circles under my arms. I was trying to stay dry as long as I could.
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel
The words rolled off his tongue, interweaving into an absurd poetry. He didn't seem to care if his words made sense or what people might think of him for singing them. I thought, "Yes, be like Bob Dylan. Throw it out there. Be true to yourself and don't worry what others say." That week, I mastered the elephants, although I knew they were still there, pounding around my cerebellum. I simply made peace with them; if they wanted out, that was cool, but until they were needed, maybe they could send out a juggler or a cat fancier instead.
In the following weeks, we learned about the fundamentals of a scene, how to build relationships between characters, how to establish characterization. Most importantly, we learned the principle of "yes, and." When a scene partner says or does something (which is called, in improv parlance, making an offer), you don't negate it but instead embrace it. So instead of acting like a little kid ("I shot you!" "No you didn't"), you go where the suggestion takes you, embrace the unknown.
We worked on all these concepts through scene games and challenges. Though sometimes I would have off weeks, as everyone did, other weeks felt better and my confidence grew.
If Bob Dylan taught me to trust my instincts, Marge the trucker driver made me a true believer. Marge isn't a real person; she's a character I developed for a game called Expert Panel. In it, four players stand in a line and adopt a specific character. Then an interviewer asks them questions, and they respond in character.
We'd been talking about how to create a character: through body language, use of voice, attitude. In this particular case, our fellow classmates chose our characters. When they gave me "truck driver," I imagined the truckers who frequent the truck stop in my hometown. I lowered my center of gravity, hooked my thumbs in my pockets and carried myself like a beefy woman in a flannel shirt might, wearing faded jeans and boots. Marge's movements came through my arms, her no-nonsense way of speaking, much like my Polish coal-mining grandfather, came out my mouth.
As our instructor asked us question after question, I never paused to wonder whether what I was saying would be funny. Instead, I simply let Marge answer. The next few paragraphs are a slightly rewritten version of what I wrote about it at the time.
When one of the classmates asked what we do to stay warm, I answered, "I put my flannel shirt on, I got my ears on, and I talk dirty to everybody. It gets hot!"
The next question was obviously aimed at the supermodel on the panel: "What do you think of the Brazil wax?" When it was my turn, I said, "I drove to Brazil once, and I waxed a rabbit on the way down there." I slammed my foot down like I was hitting the accelerator hard.
The next question was also clearly a supermodel question: "Do you have a special diet to maintain your figure."
I said, "Are you being smart?" He said no. "Well, you go to Bob's Truck Stop, and they've got an all-day breakfast buffet. You just load that plate up. Keeps you slim and sexy."
My instructor expressed disbelief that this diet would keep you slim.
"Well, you don't eat the bread! That stuff will kill you. You just load up on the bacon."
I think my best response, though, was to the last question. Somebody asked where was a good place to go for vacation. I was the last person, and I was thinking about what to say, although trying not to overthink it. I had no idea what I was going to say until it got to me and my instructor repeated the question: "You've been all over. You must know some nice places to visit. Where would you like to go for vacation?"
"Home," I said, wistfully. Everybody cracked up. I knew right then I didn't have to say anything more. My instructor even quoted me when he complimented us on how well we all did. "Home," he said with the thick redneck accent.
The response from my classmates was phenomenal. Marge was a hit. For a couple weeks afterwards, my classmates still quoted Marge to me. I wish I could take credit for it, but she came alive inside me. She was a gift, a gift from the comedy gods. One hell of a gift.
There's nothing more exhilarating than getting out there without a safety net. Even with all the training and lessons, you can still stumble or hesitate on stage. But the most beautiful thing about it is that the audience is on your side. Both in our own class performances (for friends and family) and the ComedySportz performances, I've noticed that when a player screws up, the audience laughs with them. Sometimes they laugh more than they might at a perfectly-performed scene.
After the beginning class, I took the intermediate class, the advanced class and a musical improv class. I even auditioned for the ComedySportz troupe, but though I made the judges laugh, I didn't get a call back. I didn't care; I just felt proud of myself for trying. For the past year I've taken a break to put more effort into my writing, especially my wedding book. I'll probably go back, though, at least to take another class, because it's so much fun running onto that stage with nothing in my head but confidence.
I've realized that it doesn't matter that I didn't go to Second City all those years ago. I learned the lessons I needed to, when I was ready for them.
I'm the person who always needs to plan everything out, internal schedules ticking away. It's a revelation to be able to trust those inner gods, the ones that grace us with spontaneity, magic and laughter. I would walk on AstroTurf on my knees a dozen times for that lesson. But I'm really, really glad I didn't have to.
Let your inner voice guide you; unless it's an elephant.