It was the best of times; it was the better of times. It was a time of choreographed dances; it was a time of impromptu blobs. It was the most organized of times; it was the most chaotic of times.
Specifically, it’s right now. As I’m currently in rehearsals for two very different improv shows: Braised in Texas (Improvised BBQ Cook-Off) and The JTS Brown Experience.
Quick breakdown: Braised is a mainstage production at Coldtowne Theater that harkens to movies like “Waiting for Guffman” or “Hands on a Hard Body.” Meanwhile, JTS Brown is a revival of a curious improve format (i.e., lack of format) that was invented by some comedy bigwigs in late 90s Chicago.
These two shows would have a tough time being more distinct if they tried.
On the one hand, Braised is being directed by the very funny and hyper-on-top-of-her-shit Erika McNichol. I used to work at the same place as Erika, and I knew her tangentially to be a local bad-ass. She gets stuff done and has a plan, always. And on top of that, she’s just a very kind, honest, and talented improviser. On the other hand…
JTS Brown, which is being co-directed by Cody Dearing and Dave Buckman, was designed to eschew convention and played-out improv formats. The story goes: back in Chicago in the 1990s there were a bunch of improv superstars who decided to rehearse twice a week for almost two years before ever doing their newly designed show for an audience. That show was JTS Brown, which aimed to be truly in the moment, to forego all the established rules about improv so that the improvisers, who worked closely for so long in order to establish a deep trust, could just go. It reads like an attempt by some committed, perhaps bored improvisers to create a show that distilled the allure of improve into an essential oil, and then smear that oil across the entire show. But don’t take my word for it; read a quick breakdown of the format here.
In other words: Braised is format and order and planning; JTS Brown is the glorious absence of all of that. Braised has defined beats, pre-set acts, a choreographed dance number, and pre-selected characters. JTS Brown has a word at the beginning of the show; from there it’s a mishmash of a thousand things, sometimes all at once.
SO WHICH DO YOU PREFER?
If I were to do these shows at separate times, I might be inclined to answer JTS Brown; because (a) I’m just cocky enough to think that a lack of structure is where I can let my inner artist express his true plumage (yack!), and (b) the world of BBQ doesn’t interest me like I used to think it did.
During college, I nabbed an internship at Texas Monthly magazine, which I soon came to learn was a magazine of some renown and reporting cred. My internship, however, didn’t transform me into the next Molly Ivins. Instead, I sat in front of a computer (in 2001!) and filled out spreadsheets of restaurants, and did basic research on Google to find out the last name of some random person in that issue’s cover story.
But I was tasked with one pretty killer project: Pat Smith, the magazine’s long-standing food editor, was gearing up for the annual BBQ issue; and she asked me to create a spreadsheet of all of the BBQ joints in Texas. All of them, every place that was registered with a municipal or state agency. (Which, let’s be honest, excludes some of the best BBQ spots in the state.) My memory being a bag of shit, as it is, I can’t recall many details from that project. But I stared at the names, addresses, and published reviews of hundreds of BBQ restaurants for about two full months.)
But as much as I love meat—and I love meat, intimately, like a Civil War soldier writing letters home to Dearest Patricia, I love meat—I don’t obsess over its providence or preparation. I eat it. And I rub my tummy and grin like a stroke victim. Yummy. That’s it.
Back to the original question, which of these two shows do I prefer? Because I’m going through them concurrently, I simply can’t pick one. You can definitely select a favorite kid, but not if you have twins. It’s like that—these shows are twins. Fraternal twins, for sure, but twins all the same. They complement each other perfectly.
On the one hand, JTS Brown rehearsals are really pushing my improv muscles, demanding of me things I’m not always comfortable with onstage, i.e., physicality. Meanwhile, Braised is asking me to go deep, deep into a character and a world. After all, we have each created 2-3 characters for this show, and we’ll whip one out every Friday night, and we’ll attempt to find their nugget, their core, their essence—and play around with them.
JTS is wide; Braised is deep.
And when you combine wide and deep, ya know what you get? A big, big hole in the ground into which you might install a gorgeous swimming pool.