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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/14/09) 11:21am - ... wherein Peter posts an improv update.

Whew.  Lots of improv to report on for this week.

Improvised Dickens Rehearsal, 12/9/09
Not much to report about this one.  We did a quick warm-up that Roy invented on the spot:
1.  Someone shouts, "You're all a bunch of <insert character type here>".
2.  Everyone else vehemently denies being that type of character...
2b. ... while acting absolutely like that type of character.
3.  When somebody feels like moving on to the next one, they go to 1. and throw out another accusation.

So that was fun.  After a few more warm ups, we discussed how the last batch of shows had gone.  (Executive summary:  good fun, but less Dickensian than the earlier shows.)  We did some Dickensian Story Spine, read aloud from a few of his short stories, ran some scenes involving villains, and practiced some stage combat.

One More Night Rehearsal, 12/9/09
After that, I caught the very tail end of the latest Arabian-Nights-prov rehearsal, where the cast were going over thematically-useful vocabulary words.[1]  Apparently the rehearsal had included more scenes-with-poetry-in-them, and some scenework with Audrey off to the side, occasionally raising large flash cards with appropriately Nights-y words to include in the scene.

Afterwards, Mo and I hung out and watched the start of Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but it was late & we didn't last too long.

The Love Notes/Confidence Men, 12/11/09
Friday night I checked out the Double Barrel at the Hideout, which that week featured the Love Notes and Confidence Men.

The Love Notes were presenting the last performance of their "Where in the World?" run, which was based around the old
"Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" game show.[2]  They took a location suggestion (they went with Seattle), and then set up a story of criminals who'd stolen some Seattle-centric thing (all of the Starbucks locations, it turns out), and the Acme crime-stoppers who were sent to pursue them.

After that, Confidence Men put on their improvised Mamet show.  They prompted the audience for a location, and they went with "insane asylum."  The real highlight of that performance, IMHO, was the second act, which quickly turned into a three-hander between an orderly (Asaf), a friendly psychiatrist (Jeff), and a relentless voice in the orderly's head (Troy).  They did a great job of ratcheting up the tension, with Asaf desperately trying to hide his conversations with Troy while Jeff kept coaxing Asaf to come clean about his (Asaf's) condition, until finally Troy goaded Asaf into strangling the shrink to death.

Pretty intense stuff.

One More Night Rehearsal, 12/12/09
Rehearsals for the Arabian-Nights-themed show continue to go well.

We did our usual physical warm-ups -- as usual, I used it as an excuse to make the troupe do blues-dance moves.

Then we tried out a possible opening for the show:  we started with a 'drum circle', where we got in a circle and each of us made some sort of repeating noise to build up an instrumental song.  Once we'd done that, Audrey started narrating a story, and several of the us jumped in to perform the story in dumbshow.  The narrative switched back and forth between dumbshow/narration and straight-up performance.  But the bad-ass part was that (1) the drum-circle 'song' continued to soundtrack everything, and (2) we kept adjusting the soundtrack to fit the events.  So if there was an especially violent scene, the song got footstomps and hard vocal phonemes thrown in, and if there was a quiet moment in the story, the song would recede to, say, exhalations and rubbing our hands together.

I think after that we discussed the show structure for a while.

Then we did our first run-throughs of the show.  We did a couple of run-throughs of about twenty minutes apiece.

Frankly, the first of the two run-throughs, I would have been happy to do for a paying audience.  A lot of the elements we'd been working on were firing on all cylinders.  One scene included improvised poetry, as three brothers pleaded with a supernatural creature not to kill them.  In another scene, I sang an improvised song (in my best pastiche of half-remembered bellydancing music) while the other performers did a dance diamond[3] to it.  We had stories within stories, several layers deep.  There were great supernatural elements:  a vast underwater city, a magical talking animal, a goddess of rain.  We also had some nice non-supernatural elements, mostly to do with sailors, shipwrecks, and family betrayals.

We also introduced the new structural elements we'd discussed beforehand.  We now had a host ("the
Burton") who would introduce the show, get an audience suggestion, and then throw to that night's Scheherezade.  She lay on a divan next to that night's Sharyar, narrating that evening's story.  Sch. and Sh. could then cut into the story occasionally to clear up confusion:

Sharyar:  But you said there was going to be a song!
[Cast:  Oh, crap, we forgot the song.]
Scheherezade:  Of course, Sultan.  We are just about to get to that.
Also, those two could play with the idea that, over the course of the original Arabian Nights, Sharyar falls in love with Scheherezade -- so there could be playful sexual tension between the two.

And the best new bit of story structure was that, true to the source material, we ended the story on a tremendous cliffhanger.  I played the hero in my little run-through, and at the last moment, my two murderous brothers had discovered me on a small island and were descending on me with scimitars.

Then we all froze at that moment.  Scheherezade promised to tell the sultan the rest of the story the next day.  And lo, our storytelling heroine survived to another dawn.

Next rehearsal is Wednesday.  I'm looking forward to it.

Side note:  if it is technically possible for us to do silhouetted dumbshows (with, say, a backlight and a scrim) in this production, that would kick ass.

Additional side note:  I think the only big weakness we've got right now is that we just haven't had enough time reading the source material.  Hopefully that will self-correct in the next couple of weeks.

Additional additional side note:  apparently all of us cast members (boys and girls alike) are getting some sort of basic, basic bellydance instruction on the 30th.  That should be exciting.

Improvised Dickens, 12/12/09, 6pm
From the Arabian Nights rehearsal, I went downtown, picked up a sandwich at Subway, and walked to the Hideout.  Then:  scarfed down food, changed into costume, noodled with the green-room guitar for a  few minutes, and hey! it was call-time for the Dickens show.

During the 6pm show, I jumped into the first scene -- as an old man who dies just before making radical changes to his will -- but then I hung back for an hour or so.  The generally gist of this story was that Kareem was an orphan sent off to live with his uncle (Marc), who had a penchant, it turns out, for killing people in his family, wheedling their estates to himself through various maneuvers, and leaving their bodies in locked chests around the couch.

I finally jumped in towards the end as "Charles Claggard", an undertaker that the hero winds up working for in his teens.  I say 'jumped in', but it was really that the more experienced hands were like, "Hey, let's set up a role for Peter and encourage him to take the stage," which was right nice of them.

Improvised Dickens, 12/12/09, 8pm
We've taken to no longer picking the protagonist ahead of time in the Dickens show.  It makes for a more-improvised show, but it does lead to a certain hesitation, as we're in a cast where none of us want to leap in and play the lead.  It's not that we don't *like* playing the lead -- it's more like when two very polite people approach a doorway and spend five minutes "after you"-ing instead of going anywhere.

This time around, the narrator introduced himself as "Horace", and then we had a group scene where none of us was clearly 'Horace' until Patrick Daniel (as a schoolmaster) turned to me and said, "Horace, what are you doing?!"  Ah.  It would appear that I am Horace then.

I frantically did a mental rewind through the scene to try and remind myself what had happened onstage so far.

Then I got going as Horace.

I did alright.  I didn't torpedo the show, which is good.  I gave Horace a certain blind optimism:
Joplin:  Horace, this is Mister Vile, an apothecary who will take care of you.
Me:  Mister Vile sounds like a lovely man!
... and regardless of what happened, I kept that plate spinning.

I could have done better if I had given Horace an objective, too, but oh well.  It's not so bad, as many Dickensian heroes --  especially in the early, put-upon-orphan books -- don't have real objectives beyond just scraping by.  But the fact that I didn't have an objective meant that the story got very episodic.  This happened, then that happened, then this other thing happened, but it didn't line up to an overall arc, because I wasn't pressing towards some particular goal.  But again, this is sometimes apparent in the source material as well.

Basically, my objectivelessness put all the storytelling weight on the supporting cast, and I felt kind of bad about that.  They had to make things happen, I just reacted to it, and tried to achieve whatever short-term goal made sense, given my character's take on the world.  But the rest of the cast was freakishly good, so they were well up to the task of keeping the story humming along.

This time around, I was an orphan being raised in a poorhouse, who was later dispatched to an abusive priest (Joplin) and still later apprenticed to a shady apothecary (Marc).  The plot got strange, with some sort of scandal involving Joplin having an illegitimate son (me), and a painting that concealed proof of that scandal.  There was also "Alcove Johnny", a character who could navigate a set of secret tunnels to reach any hidden nook or cranny in Londontown.

But yet, it all kinda sorta made sense at the time.  Also, I'm not the best judge of what happened in that show.  I talked this over with Kareem:  when you play the protagonist in the Dickens show, you're spending much more time rolling with the story instead of sitting back and observing it (hell, you're onstage for almost every moment of the first two acts).  End result:  you walk away from the story you just starred in with little-to-no idea of what just happened.

Micetro, 12/12/09
And then, Micetro got started.  I hadn't signed up to play in Micetro, but Jeff Britt had had to bow out of the cast because he'd been put on a shift at the
24 Diner at the last minute.  (Side note:  by all reports, the food is awesome at the 24 Diner.)  So I grovelled to Roy and got to have that slot.

This was a freakishly talented cast that night, with half of Improv for Evil, half of Parallelogramophonograph, a visitor from South Philly, and Sean Hill himself sitting in for that week's Whose-Line-meets-Survivor performance.  Somehow, I made it a couple of rounds before being dispatched to the great beyond.  Then I took photos.

Oh, and we opened with "Category Die".[4]  For the first round, the category was "types of fish".  I very confidently said "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting", and was sent off to the wings. 

In "Category Die", I rarely play to win.  I almost always play to lose gloriously.

It was silly and high-energy.  The audience was a bit drinky and unruly, but they were into the show.  I got to do some pretty simple games -- tag-team monolog, word-at-a-time expert -- and was happy to sit aside afterwards and watch the fun.

Then after that, most of us went off to an improv house party and hung out 'til five in the morning or so.  At some point, we hit upon the winning improv format "Curtis Reads from the Works of Jorge Luis Borges While Peter Shouts Mostly-Profane Words of Encouragement," which was not entirely unlike "Learning Something New About History."

Anyway:  that was a busy day for improv.  I'm performing in one last Dickens show.  Then some time after that, the Arabian Nights show should kick into high gear.

[1] And somehow I recalled that William Safire had penned the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativity", but I said that he wrote it for Nixon, when it was in fact written for then-vice-president Spiro Agnew.  I also guessed wrong about what "nabob" actually meant, which was the whole point of the discussion.  Oop-la.

[2] Side note:  I see from that wikipedia page that the show ran from 1991 to 1996, meaning I must have watched it in my late teens, when the show was really geared towards small children.  (What can I say?  The geography trivia was neat, and, hey, Rockapella.)  I'm a little weirded out by people a decade younger than I am cheerily singing the theme song -- though I suppose *I* am the weird one.

[3] This is an improvised-dance setup.  Four performers take the stage:  one downstage, one upstage, one stage left, one stage right.  All of them face forward.  They then dance to a song, with the downstage performer improvising dance moves and the other three performers watching that person and copying that person's moves as accurately as possible.  If at some point the lead dancer turns to the left, then everyone starts following the stage-left performer (who improvises).  If the lead dancer turns upstage, then they all follow the upstage performer.  And so on.

[4] In "Category, Die", everyone gets in a semicircle.  The director then gets a category from the audience -- say, "types of cars".  Then the director points to one person after another, and each person pointed-to has to say something in that category ("Buick!"  "Toyota!"  "Benjamin Orr!").  If you hesitate, if you repeat something somebody else said, or you say something that's not in the category, the audience shouts, "DIE!" at you en masse, and you get eliminated from the game.  Shana describes the game here, and there's a video of a Micetro performance of the game here.

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Date:Monday (12/14/09) 12:40pm
"Learning something new about history" still ranks as one of your all-time best sketches IMHO. You could actually film that one on the cheap with minimal sets using a camcorder or digital camera and upload it to youtube... I'm just sayin'....
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (12/14/09) 12:44pm
Thanks!  That is, in fact, one of the first things I intend to do once I get this first draft finished.
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Date:Monday (12/14/09) 2:18pm
Hi Peter! When is your last Dickens performance? I still haven't been able to make it out yet!
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Date:Monday (12/14/09) 2:25pm

*waves cheerfully*

It's this coming Saturday at 8pm, at the Hideout.
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