Thursday, April 27, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: I'm Flyin' Cross the Land, Tryin' to Get a Hand

My improv troupe, Whirled News Tonight, sets out tomorrow for its third ever out-of-state appearance, entertaining the kids at Xavier University in Cincinnati. It's part of what we're all calling "Whirled News Week", featuring a very brief appearance on the local news on Sunday (as chronicled in Arnie's blog), and peaking with tonight's performance on the mainstage of the Chicago Improv Festival. Either tonight's show or tomorrow's will probably be the biggest audience we've ever had.

As improvisers, we like to tell ourselves that we can perform anytime, anywhere. Clair's ensemble, Bevy, once had a show in a city park. As you might imagine, this made for a distracted audience. Nevertheless, the show's finest moment came when a toddler happily ran right through the "stage", blissfully ignorant of the show in progress. One of the performers noticed this, and also chose to run around willy-nilly. Soon, the entire group was running carefree. It was a delightful moment. So improvisation can work in any setting.

Still, it's better to have an audience, and better still to have an audience that loves you. The most memorable shows tend to be the ones where the audience is just beside themselves with enjoyment. I still have vivid memories of our 2nd anniversary show last September, where we had a house packed to the rafters that loved everything we did. (I'm so glad we got that on tape.) It's a fact of life: people telling you they love you through laughter and's pretty satisfying.

Our previous out-of-state appearances have been a mixed bag. One was at the annual Del Close Marathon in New York City. As the presence of the world "marathon" would imply, it's an onslaught of improv, with back-to-back shows running for two solid days. Sometimes it can be great (the first time I ever saw the group American Dream was very memorable), sometimes it can be atrocious (something called Southern Fried Cagematch, which is possibly the worst thing I've ever seen on a stage, and that's coming from a guy who saw Juliet Prowse in Mame). So it's into this crucible that we descended, twice. Tough crowd, considering they've been looking at an awful lot of improv. (The people who watch more than four hours in a row are insane.) But we won them over. That felt good, knowing that we'd chamred a very jaded crowd. It's also great to say, "We were a hit in New York."

The other touring experience was a week-long stint at the Piccolo Fringe in Charleston, South Carolina. That was probably the exact opposite of New York, since this audience had hardly watched any improv at all. We hard to revert to our longer introduction, since the very concept of "we're making this all up right now" was a little foreign to them. And we were out of sorts, too. The stage was quite different: it was high above the audience, and much more narrow and shallow than the one to which we were accustomed. It was also decorated with large paintings of meat. (Long story.) Most importantly, it was the first time we had ever attempted shows on multiple consecutive nights. It was an actual run.

One thing that made Charleston a very unique experience was that the group was housed together. In New York, it was every man for himself, but in Charleston, we all shacked up in a hostel in what was not an especially nice part of town. As a result, there was a little more of a sense of unity. We were a unit, marching through town like the opening shot of Reservoir Dogs. Like some sort of comedy platoon, we descended on the theater.

My memory tells me that we got off to a shaky start. The crowds were appreciative, and particularly seemed to enjoy John Glynn's portrayl of Governor Mark Sanford in the guise of Redd Foxx. But they weren't screaming for more, and even a half-full house tended to feel cavernously empty. I think it was our third show of the run when, after an especially unsatisfying show, we went backstage (an alley) and immediately jumped into an aggressive post-mortem. It was the first time I could remember where we'd had what could honestly be called a bad show, and no one liked it.

Fortunately, we didn't wallow. We got better. And the houses got better, really digging our stuff by the end. (A personal highlight for me was getting a huge response for a bar that I'd built on a railroad trestle. It made sense at the time.) I understand the final show, which I missed -- and boy, do I regret that now -- was the best of all. So if the evidence is to be believed, we really can play anywhere, anytime. Maybe not at first, but give is a day or two, and we'll have it nailed.

I don't know what Cincinnati will be like. The audience should be mostly college students, and they seem to like us. And if we can score with them early on, we should roll toward a big finish. We're big on momentum. But I do know that there'll be a little bit of Charleston for this trip, as we're piling into a van for the trek. A road trip. I haven't done one of those since my high school debate days. ("Take it, Hirtzan!") There'll definitely be some camaraderie at the end of this trip.

Either that, or we'll all just kill Matt.


pad said...

Perhaps this will help explain the stage:

Despite being there for over a week, and going back over the list of shows that we were sharing the stage with, I can't imagine what needed the stage painted that way.

The One Man Star Wars, maybe?

Paul Winston said...

I want a t-shirt!