Last night I popped my public-performance cherry onstage at the Harrisburg Improv Theater (HIT). What initially started as a ‘dinner and a show’ date night in early March has become a foray into the alluring world of the performing arts.
In early March, after watching the silly fun our friend Liz Piscioneri and her troupe had on stage, Leigh said: “You should do this. I’d think you’d have fun with it”.
Other than me being a natural-born smart-ass with a seemingly perpetual rolodex of inappropriate comments, coupled with a shameless attraction to the limelight, I’m not sure why she would make such a suggestion.
The idea of taking a prompt and developing a comedy sketch from a single word or a line from a song seemed pretty cool, and right up my alley. Actually I was pretty excited and, as is usually the case, I didn’t just dip my toes in the water. Even when faced with the known risk of a probable belly flop, I went all-in like the kid yelling “Cannonball!” near the crowded end of the pool. I signed up for a class. I’m now halfway through the 8-week Level I – Long Form Improvisational Comedy course at the HIT. Then I paid $17.00 in overnight shipping for a $12 book (Truth in Comedy), and filled my Youtube subscription queue with United Citizens Brigade improv shows.
I never saw myself taking acting lessons. I don’t even remember being in a school play. Yet here I am – in an acting class, side-by-side with amazingly talented people learning the basics of a craft they all are seemingly fluent in. It is humbling.
Each class starts with a series of warm up exercises with names like, Bippity Bippity Bop, Pass the Knife, and Samurai. Then Cody, our instructor, leads us through various topic overviews and exercises that include sessions like effective object play, developing character subtexts, and creating trust in your scene-mates. We then get up in pairs and are given only a one word prompt for location or relationship. From this we improvise a scene.
It seems pretty easy, until I get up on stage. While each class has been exciting and eye-opening, at the same time it is sometimes painfully awkward. Creating a character, dialogue and scene on stage from a single word is an entirely different animal than cracking one-liners from my chair.
After every class, the conversation with Leigh has been the same:
Me: “I don’t know. I just don’t feel comfortable.”
Leigh: “What do you mean, you don’t feel comfortable?” What is it that makes you so uncomfortable?
Me: “I don’t know. Everybody in this class is so talented. They’ve all been in acting before; there are stand-up comedians, a rapper, and a musician. These are the kids in the school play; you know real theater people!”
Leigh: “Just relax. You’re fine. Stay out of your own way. Just be you.”
Me: “And everyone is so much younger than me. I don’t understand the slang and all of the pop culture references.
Leigh: “Stay out of your own way; you’ll be fine.”
Other than talent, youth and the pop culture thing – I kind of fit right in.
Yet there is something that keeps drawing me back. Last night’s Improv Mixer was my first public performance. The format allows two volunteers, generally strangers, the opportunity to “do a scene”. In this format the “prompt” is approximately 10 seconds of a random song selected by the DJ. When the music stops, the stage lights go on, and the actors begin improvising the location, relationship, character and dialogue all based on inspiration from the song clip. The first person to speak is the first person to speak. The rest, we hope, is magic.
I didn’t know either song.
In my first scene I found myself playing the boy on a father-son fishing trip. Dad was trying to teach me how to work the fishing rod, “slow and easy”, moving the hook in and out of the water gently, “because the fish like it better”. Assuming the role of a defiant son, I said I wanted to attract the kind of fish that like the wild whipping motion of my fishing rod. The contrasting motions of ‘slow and easy’ with ‘whipping’ were fun. Frustrated, dad sent me to get him a beer, which I mimed spitting into before I handed it to him.
In the second scene, inspired by another unfamiliar song, I found myself catering to the whims of a very high maintenance girlfriend. I rushed to the imaginary bar ordering imaginary drinks from an imaginary bartender. When I presented the drinks to my ‘girlfriend’, she demanded olives. I, resourcefully, reached into my front pocket. Every real actor needs to have a spare set of olives in his pocket; of this I am quite sure.
It was silly and it was fun. I am hooked.
It’s hard to say how far I’ll take this new journey. Last night I tasted the thrill of silly fun I saw when I watched Liz in that first show. What I have learned for sure it is one thing to get laughs being a smartass and witty while sitting in my chair; it is entirely different to build a scene with a characters and dialogue from a single word or a song.
If you’re looking for something a little different on a Saturday night – check it out.
HARRISBURG IMPROV THEATER
H A R R I S B U R G ‘ S H O M E F O R L O N G – F O R M
I M P R O V I S A T I O N A L C O M E D Y
1633 N 3RD ST, HARRISBURG, PA, 1 7 1 0 2
7 1 7 – 7 9 8 – 6 9 7 3
H B G I M PROV @ G M AI L .CO M