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

Thursday (8/5/10) 9:44am - ... wherein Peter did a show with Girls Girls Girls.

This past Friday I guested with "Girls Girls Girls", Austin's all-female musical improv troupe.


Every summer, the Girls Girls Girls girls do their "Boys of Summer" summer, where a different male improvisor guests with the troupe every week.  This is their fifth year of that show, and to my happy surprise, I was invited to join them for a night.

I was impressed with their marketing leading up to the show.  They steadily talked up my guest appearance through their facebook page, their twitter feed, and the relevant thread on the AIC forums.  They also have one of the best show posters I've seen in some time.[1]  (Some dance friends of mine randomly saw the poster at a restaurant, and apparently all screamed at once when they saw my name on it.)

For my part, I got an outfit put together.  The cast dresses entirely in pink, black, and white.[2]  Black I had.  White I had.  Pink I needed.  I checked in with Dillard's -- "Do you have a men's shiny hot-pink dress shirt?"  Um... no.  So:  to the Internets!  It was surprisingly hard to find what I was looking for; I ended up having to choose between a light pink sateen shirt and a fuchsia non-shiny shirt.  I went with the fuchsia.  At the last minute, I hunted for hot pink dress socks -- again, no luck at local clothiers.  I checked in with the hivemind, and a fashion-blogger friend recommended WeLoveColor.com.[3]  Sarah Marie found a hot-pink fabric swatch I could use for a pocket square.

My rehearsal came around on Sunday.  Owing to a scheduling conflict, I shared my rehearsal with Jon Bolden, a very experienced improvisor who used to be a gigging musician back in Ohio.  The rehearsal was kind of funny, in that the Girls Girls Girls girls usually spend the rehearsal explaining basic prinicples of musical improv to the guest star, and demonstrating some simple song structures for them.  But in this case, Shana had taught both Jon and me in several consecutive improv-singing classes, so we skipped all that.

Instead, we just ran through some vocal warm-ups, did some standard singing games (chorus-master, tagline song, stuff like that), and then did some narrative run-throughs.

It was really clear that they do an amazing job of taking care of guest stars.  I'm not sure *how* they manage it -- and I'll probably go over the show recording with a fine-tooth comb to glean what I can about it -- but I do know that everything felt easy.  If I came in with a second verse, I could pattern off of a clearly-structured first verse.  If I was in a scene, it was clear where I was in the narrative and what was going on.  I could really just show up and sing stuff, and everything kind of took care of itself.

So:  that boded well for the show.[4]

I realized fairly late in the week that I had a couple of comps for the show to give away.  I pinged twitter/facebook about it, mentioning that I'd give preference to people who were poor-ish and who hadn't seen any Austin improv shows before.  I managed to square them away with Rachel and Kat, college types I knew from dancing.  Kat had seen a short-form gamey troupe at Stanford a few times.  Rachel had never seen improv live, just episodes of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Finally, the show itself came 'round.  I got to the Hideout an hour ahead of time.  Every time I show up to the theater, I'm surprised at how nice the place looks.  "Oh, right, there's a carpet.  And wall sconces.  And a chandelier.  And art on the walls."  How many black-box theaters look this good?  Not many, surely.

We did some standard warm-ups.  Vocal rolls.  Chord building.  Setting each other up for rhymes.[5]  Then up to simple scene-song-scene setups.

Then they opened house and we cleared out to the green room.  It turned out the show didn't sell out -- which surprised us, given the number of pre-sales.  A bunch of friends wound up not able to make it.  Jessica gave blood that day and wound up too woozy to leave the house.  Neal got sick.  Lauren got stuck in traffic.  And so on.  But my comped friends made it, and settled in to see their very first longform improv show.

Lights up, show started.

I got introduced and bounded up to the stage.

"Are you ready to start, Peter?"

I tried to say something funny, wound up stuttering out something meaningless, and simultaneously giggled/facepalmed.

(At this point, I suppose I'm recounting spoilers for that particular performance.  If anybody wants to skip this until after they see the show video, I totally understand.)

We took location suggestions.  I heard "observatory" early on.  The Girls Girls Girls girls spent a long time listening for additional suggestions.  I finally realized, oh, wait, they probably want *me* to pick one, so I had us go with observatory.[6]

Format-wise, a Boys of Summer show starts with (1) an opening thematic number, then (2) three unrelated scenes, leading to (3) a hero-centered narrative, with the Guest Boy playing the hero.

True to form, we did a group song about objects in space ("Look Up There in the Sky"), then three scenes.  The first was me ("Joe") and my boss ("Professor Andrews", played by Aden), looking at a nova detected by the main telescope at "Kinewawe Observatory" in Hawaii.[7]

Aden initiated a song with a verse about the uncountable number of stars in the sky.  It felt like a duet, so I kicked in verse #2, going for the analogous theme of "long distances".  I had an abab rhyme scheme (suddenly I can't recall if that's what Aden had set up in verse #1).  My verse's first line was "There's so much distance, it goes to parsecs."  Then when the third line came around... you know how they say a limerick is funny not because it ends with a dirty word, but because it has no *choice* but to end with a dirty word?  Line 3 came around, and I stifled a giggle as the line went inevitably to "So you and I, we can't ignore sex."

So suddenly we're lovers, but we can never be together because of our working relationship.  I think Aden hit the chorus after that, and the song became "You're My Star".

After that, unrelated scene #2.  Shana initiated a family vacation with her as Ms. Dogwood, and Sarah Marie and Erin playing her put-upon tween daughter and teen son, respectively.  What's interesting here is that GGG makes a deliberate effort to not only create unrelated scenes, but to create scenes which occupy different 'spheres'.  The first one was set in the workplace, so it was logical to set the second one in the 'domestic' sphere.  They also set up a song that was quite different from the first two ballad-y numbers:  the "Dogwood Family Song" was upbeat, uptempo, and vaguely oompah-like, with arfing noises in various sections.

I stumbled in to initiate the third scene.  I planted myself in a chair and called court into session, implying that I was a judge.  Eh, I just really really wanted to do a courtroom scene.  Aden had been planning to jump in at the same time, but figured I had something and hung back.  Aden had wanted to jump in so that she could play a villain -- and hello! a courtroom scene provided a perfect opportunity for that!  So Aden was off and running, as an anti-science terrorist who had decided to interfere with a research project on sea turtles by killing as many of them as he could find.[8]

(Side note:  this was one of only two scenes where I got to interact with Erin.  *sadface*)

And again, they varied the style of song, with Sarah Marie singing a patter-song closing argument with lots of sudden stops and starts.

And then we were off and running.  As the story developed, the troupe did a couple of really impressive things.  First off, they managed to weave together the three disparate elements:  research at the observatory, crazy terrorist guy, and family on vacation.  The general scheme of things was that Ms. Dogwood visited the observatory with her kids and then left her kids there to go out and see the island with me.  Then the terrorist planted a bomb at the observatory.  The cops showed up and locked both Professor Andrews *and* the two kids inside the building.  This left Joe and Ms. Dogwood trying to break back into the observatory, defuse the bomb, catch the terrorist, and save the day.

Maybe it seems simple, when I put it like that.  But trust me:  it's something of a feat, funneling things together like that.  There are lots and lots of improv shows that start with three storylines, but very few of those subsequently end with only one.[9]

The other amazing thing they did was to keep nudging me into the hero role.  This was a challenge for them, because I'm just not that good at playing a protagonist.  On a good day, I can give my hero-character an objective (yay!), but even then, I have trouble making my character actively pursue that objective.

So under the surface of the story, the ladies worked very hard to make Joe central to the musical.  Shana set up a love triangle, with both Professor Andrews and Ms. Dogwood wooing Joe.  And they kept twisting the story threads around so that they'd be relevant to Joe, and that I would at least have the opportunity to do something heroic.

That said, I was my usual passive self.  But then again, this led to one of my favorite moments of the show.  About fifty minutes in, Ms. Dogwood and Joe were breaking into the freight entrance of the observatory.  Shana crept through the (mimed) underbrush.  I crept along after her.  Shana leaped over an obstruction.  I follwed.  Shana edged along a ledge.  I edged after her.  Then the motions got more abstract:  Shana traipsed lightly across the stage; I traipsed along after.  Shana did interpretive-dance spins around the stage; I spun along behind.  Finally, I grabbed Shana and tangoed her across the stage.

And then we stopped center stage.  And Shana left a bunch of space for me to take the decisive action of breaking in.  And I, being passive, just sat there for several seconds.  Then I said, "Right.  We're here."

They say in improv that the audience is actually watching two shows.  The first is the story that you're telling:  Ms. Dogwood and Joe are trying to break into the observatory.  The second is the meta-story, the story of improvisors trying to put on a show on the spot.  I thought this was a lovely meta-moment:  two improvisors have taken a game to Zanytown, and then have an awkward moment of, "Okay.  Um... are we done with that bit?", before moving on.

Towards the very end of the show, I got to do something I've never done in improv before.[10]  Once we broke into the observatory, Ms. Dogwood immediately karate-chopped Professor Andrews into unconsciousness.  I (as Joe) gasped.  I crept over to the Professor.

And then I reprised "You're My Star".

Okay, those of you who know scripted musicals are probably unimpressed.  Scripted musicals feature reprises all over the place.  And a sudden make-or-break moment in the Joe/Prof relationship fairly screams for a reprise.  So musical fans are probably like, "Duh.  Of course you did a reprise." 

I really don't know if I can properly explain how difficult a reprise is in an improv musical.  In order to pull it off, you have to do several things very well.  First, you have to sing a song that's recognizeably a song.  If it doesn't have structure, if it's meandering and through-composed, then you can't reprise it because the audience hears nothing to recognize later on.  If it doesn't have any hook to the melody, you probably can't reprise it either.

Then -- then you have to *remember* it.  So:  you have to *remember* a song that you are hearing only once, one that has never been sung before.  You have to stash it away in your memory banks *while you are performing a story out of nothing*.  (And keep in mind, improvisors often finish a show, leave the stage, and have *no idea* what they were doing for the last hour and a half.)  You have to hold on to it for, in this case, an *hour* -- while you are hearing tons and tons and tons of other brand-new material, which is a bit like trying to hold on to a phone number while somebody recites the first hundred digits of pi.  And finally, you have to leap in at the right moment, confident that you'll be able to sing it again.

I have done a decent number of improvised musicals at this point.  This was the first time I'd managed a rerpise.

The reprising continued into the amazing closing section.  Joe and the professor finally got together -- the prof gave up her management job at the observatory so that she'd be okay with the relationship.  I had Joe, as his first act as manager, open up the main dome so that the two of them could have an unobstructed view of the night sky.

That led to a reprise of "Look Up There in the Sky", as all of the show's disparate groups of character gazed up at the stars.  And then, Aden and I sang "You're My Star" in counterpoint to it.  And then, the Dogwoods punctuated the closing number with bits of the "Dogwood Family Song".

Afterwards, Michael Brokcman (the musical improvisor that night) pointed out that the last eight minutes of the show reprised, in some form, every major musical number from the whole hour-and-change.  Apparently, this is a Very Rare Thing.

Then we were done.  Rachel went on to that night's blues dance and absolutely raved to everyone there about the show.  Apparently she had laughed until she was in physical pain.  I said goodnight to the audience, said goodnight to the cast, and wandered off to various Friday-night parties and dances.

In retrospect, I'm really proud of that show.  True, I was in some ways limited.  I didn't take enough intiative.  I didn't really set up a character for Joe.  (In fact, I think I started with a Kentucky accent and then immediately dropped it.)  Oh, and I occasionally tried to be funny, and that usually didn't work.

Side note:  pretty much the first thing they tell you in improv school is 'don't try to be funny'.  Just stay true to the character and true to the scene, and the comedy will take care of itself.  For some mysterious reason telling jokes in improv -- 'gagging' -- always fails miserably.  Audiences hate it.  And yet, as with most artistic pursuits, that basic principle they explain on the first day is the thing that you're going to struggle with for your whole artistic career.  I think for the next month or so I'll make a conscious effort to be less jokey.[12]

But all in all, I think I put on the best show I could.  When I sang, I sang solidly.  When I followed the girls' lead in the story, I followed it creatively.  I made sure I was having fun, and that feeling is almost always infectious to the audience.

And my reprise was a stunner, if I do say so myself.

All in all, it was good work.

I see that the video of the show is now online (thanks Michael Thomas!).  Once I get a chance to look that over, I imagine I'll have more to say about it.  For now I'll just put my Boys of Summer gig in the 'improv win' column with, say, the opening night of One More Night and that one Roman play we did in Improvised Shakespeare.

Excelsior!

_____
[1] ... courtesy of Deano Jones, who is evidently talented at ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING.

[2] For Dancy Street, we tried to rip this off by setting a green-and-black color scheme.  We immediately saw the flaw in this plan when we showed up for our first publicity shoot wearing wildly-different shades of green.  (We have since emended the color scheme to "emerald-and-black".)

[3] ... where I also picked up some emerald socks to go with my Dancy Street outfit and some maroon ones to go with one of my dress shirts.

[4] Then I traipsed off and performed in a really solid Dancy Street show, which also boded well for the GGG gig.

[5] We had the topic "sandwiches" for a while.  I was very proud of myself for setting up the acronym "BLT" with the rhyme "fealty".

[6] Side note:  IIRC, Rachel started out as an astronomy major.  This may have influenced my decision.  Come to think of it, I had toyed with using an observatory for the premiere of One More Night, but I couldn't find enough information about the golden age of astronomy in Alexandria to feel comfortable with that.

[7] I think I was the one who threw in the Hawaii location (hey, there's less light pollution on Pacific islands) without consciously realizing that the troupe is raising money to go to an improv festival in Hawaii later this year.

[8] Come to think of it, maybe I should be glad misaedra didn't see this, as it might have hit uncomfortably close to home.

[9] This is just my own experience as an improv-viewer talking.  YMMV.

[10] And no, I don't mean "kiss another improvisor", as One More Night broke that cherry thoroughly and repeatedly.

[11] Side note:  and it's actually true that workers at an observatory almost never see the sky directly.  They're almost always planted in front of screens which show the data the telescope is gathering.

[12] I did do one joke I was proud of.  I played a gruff sheriff's deputy who was interviewing Miss Dogwood (Erin), who was chatting a million miles a minute about junior-high gossip.  Then this bit happened:

"And he totally went to Disneyland!  And that was so crazy, 'cos --"
"Well, he lied then."
"-- because I thought that -- what?"
*flipping through notes*
"Jeremy Carlson told Amanda the week before that he wasn't going anywhere.  So that's a discrepancy."
"I KNOW!"
That was just fun.

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[User Picture]
From:fraeuleinchen
Date:Thursday (8/5/10) 8:37pm
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I liked this metaphor: "like trying to hold on to a phone number while somebody recites the first hundred digits of pi."

'Difficult' just doesn't cut it in this case (not that I've done improv... but I know it's really hard and complex)!
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