I came onstage thinking, “Play an old man. Play a really old guy. Pretend you are elderly now.” Two minutes later, T. turned to me and said, “Young man, tell me something…” His line blew to smithereens my notion of playing an elderly man.
So, what do we do in this situation?
Ideally, we adapt instantaneously.
In this case, I shat the bed.
Some improv teachers say, “Focus on the very first thing in the scene.” Mick Napier recommends it. Stephen Kearin teaches entire workshops on the topic. If you’re willing to let them, two offers — one from you, one from your scene partner — are enough to sustain an entire 45-minute improv show.
But back to me shitting the bed: The two minutes I’d just spent crafting, with all the believability of styrofoam, an “old man character” disappeared like flash paper. I wasn’t old, I was young. I’m not old, I’m young.
Then I began to unravel.
And I felt the need to adjust, to justify to the audience why a young man — as I’d been identified — would amble around like an old man. (How I justified this is a black hole in my memory. It’s probably best left that way.)
Still! My job — and my fun — is in making it all work together.
Still! Still! In that moment onstage — in the moment when my elaborate plan to play an old man was tossed out the window, I lost my bearing. I’d come to the theater that night thinking, “I haven’t played a simple old man. Tonight I will play a simple old man who’s only objective is to collect 102 rubles.” I had a character and an objective, but 120 seconds into the show most of it became impossible to retain.
All my planning had left me without a plan.
Luckily, I’m not a complete hack. I was able to eventually make sense of my character. By the second (of four) acts, I’d re-calibrated my character. He had his own objetive, his own weird physicality. It wasn’t a complete FUBAR-ization.
Still! Still! When the show was over, I immediately labeled it “the worst show we’ve done.” This despite at least three very specific post-show compliments. The post show congratulators were just being nice, surely. Surely they were just following the “support your fellow improvises” protocol.
Stephen Kearin once said to a workshop I was in, “We all have the worst seat in the house.” And he pointed to his own head, indicating that as improvisers we’re incapable of judging the shows we’re playing in. The worst seat in the house.
There’s a sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at work in improv: you can precisely judge an improv show’s quality or you can perform in that show, but you can’t do both.
But c’mon, we’re not idiots. We can get a sense of how a show is going, especially after a 100-minute-long show like Nothing & Everything: Improvised Anton Chekhov Plays. And while last week’s show wasn’t terrible — no, no, no, not terrible — it left an immediate impression of terribleness because I had done a poor job, personally.
My own flailing weirdness in the opening 30 minutes of the show set up a filter in my brain, one that painted the entire show, top to bottom, as a load of brown junk.
So this isn’t the anatomy of an un-fun improv show, after all. I’m trying to remind myself of two things:
1. Don’t plan a damn thing in an improv show other than your outfit.
2. Don’t replace your judgment of your performance for the audience’ judgments of the entire show, good or bad.
• • • • •
There are only two showings of Nothing & Everything before it goes away, forever, for real.