Well, there’s hardly any time left between now and my performance in the ‘graduate’ show on Saturday. (Long form improv-101) Unfortunately, I’m still clinging to the wall of room #3 at the Training Center as if it were a fucking cliff face. So terrified of letting go and leaping into the void that I can barely breathe. This, of course, is precisely why I enrolled. Because I”m terrified of letting go and leaping into the void.
“You could just do yoga or mediation, Mom?” my daughter suggested last week. This was after another friend claimed that UCB was a symptom of empty nest syndrome. Maybe my friend is right. It probably is a symptom of empty nest. I mean, I could get into yoga, take a course at the New School in Art History or learn to paint or dance the salsa. I could go into therapy. But what I actually love about the time here is that I am making a total fool of myself. That’s right. I haven’t felt this inept or as excruciatingly embarrassed, awkward and out of control in years. As a woman who attempts to maintain rigid control over everything from her writing and emotions to a social life, there is something hugely liberating about that; about being out there with no safety net. It makes me feel alive, occasionally, even brave.
Not at the moment, however. At the moment, I am still clinging to the cliff face. Our team has asked the ‘audience’ for a word. (Which is how every improv scene begins). Someone suggests ‘birthday.’ A young Korean boy steps forward and shares a short story, a monologue, about being adopted at five-years old by an American mother who is a professional birthday clown and a father who was once a rock n’ roll musician. He wrote Brandy, in the 70s. When the boy sings a few bars of the song, I join in. “Brandy, you’re a fine girl. What a fine wife you’d be.” (As the only non-practicing member of AARP in the group, I scissored up my card last year, no one else remembers the tune) Our task now is to use that monologue as inspiration; to free associate and build a series of funny scenes from it.
A guy I’ll call Dean moves into the void. A lanky, slow moving six- footer from Colorado, Dean seems almost dangerously laid-back. Yet his nails are gnawed down to the quick. His father plays speed chess for money in local Denver malls. Until I caught him reading Goethe’s Faust in the original German at break, I had him pegged as a total slacker and/or stoner. Grabbing a chair, he sits down and shouts: I am Kim Jong Il and I want my Hennesey! He is speaking in what I assume is supposed to be a Korean accent.
Oh My God! I’m thinking. ( DON’T Think. Act! is the UCB motto.) Please don’t tell me this is happening. Please don’t tell me Dean is up there playing a fucking Korean dictator drinking his favorite brandy in front of a kid who has only just found the nerve to stand up and “share” his life story. The girl we’ve dubbed Perky Patty sashays into the scene, carrying an imaginary bottle and glasses. Perky Patty is a native of Chicago. Her father is a cop and her a mother a strict Roman Catholic. She lived at home until the age of 22 with a midnight curfew. When her mother found a stack of porno in her bedroom drawer, Patty left for New York where she now works as a bartender/actress. I suspect that her perpetual cheeriness is hiding a murderous rage. As she pours Kim another imaginary drink, he becomes belligerent. “More Hennesey!” he screams. His accent resembles something out of a Charlie Chan movie.
Enough, I shriek to myself as I let go of the wall, stumble forward, and tap him on the shoulder. (Tapping is the signal that a scene is about to shift.) Holding my head in my hands, I whisper to Patty (in a stage voice) “Why did you let me drink so much last night?” Patty morphs into a solicitous room mate and we chat about her blind date on OK Cupid. “Bring it in for a hug,” yells “Dave” after knocking on the imaginary door and entering the scene. I roll my eyes. Dave is an SAT tutor in his mid-forties who likes cleaning his ears with a Q Tip during lunch. He’s also got a “thing” about hugging. The two of them kiss. My teacher (and how I love saying “my teacher”) shouts “edit” and we all return to the wall.
“How did that feel?” she asks the team. She’s always asking us how it feels. “Awful,” I reply. “Beyond awful.” Everybody laughs. “Stop trying to save scenes, Brenda,” she says. “Let it play out. Oh. And enough with the eye rolling.” “But…” “I know,” she interrupts, turning to Dean. “No more funny accents. They might get a first laugh but they don’t get a second. And now before the next team gets up, let’s review some basics.”
Many of the UCB Basics apply as much to life as they do to comedy. Telling the truth, for instance, especially in a monologue. Nothing is funnier or more universal. Stay in eye contact and listen, intently to your partner is another basic. Don’t initiate conflict or answer with a “No.” Nothing ends a scene quicker than conflict or the word ‘no.’ Establish who, where, and what you’re doing as quickly as possible. They call this “gifting.” Because it gives the other person information to work with; to expand and build upon. Don’t make jokes. Play the game. And finally, my biggest problem: Act at the top of your intelligence. So far, I have given very few signs of any intelligence at all. Oh. And then, there’s that motto: Don’t Think. Act. I should turn this into a fucking bumper sticker. Because if there’s one thing that continues to sabotage every aspect of my life/future, it’s the fact I waste so much time thinking versus acting.
After the class breaks up, our teacher gives us a form to fill out. It asks how we first heard about UCB, if we’re enjoying it, how the course might be improved, our age, our gender, and our sexual preference. This is a new one for me. There are six choices: heterosexual, homosexual, bi sexual, lesbian, transsexual and OTHER. Other? I think to myself, pencil in the air. “Other is for those who haven’t committed,” Dean whispers over my shoulder. Right, I say. Obviously. Just another thing I wouldn’t have learned at yoga or art history or dancing the salsa. I’m a nervous wreck about Saturday’s performance. The only consolation? It’s improv. And like life, there’s no rehearsal. More later.