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

Thursday (2/11/16) 7:35pm - ... wherein Peter posts about what he's going for with Fiasco.

I figure, before the show-production boulder really gets going, I want to tell all y'all what I'm going for with Fiasco, the upcoming mainstage at the Hideout.  Obviously, this may change over rehearsals: one of many reasons to improvise this instead of scripting it is to see what this show becomes once a cast and crew start creating it together.  Think of this as a snapshot of what I want from Fiasco right here at the outset.

--

First, a quick description of what Fiasco *is*.  The one-sentence logline is "A crime caper goes disastrously wrong in this improvised dark comedy, inspired by Coen Brothers classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski."  And that's serviceable enough.  But the description from the original storytelling game is so, so much better: "Maybe some dude from youth group talked you into boosting a case of motor oil, but now your cousin is dead in a swamp and you killed him.  Maybe you and your girlfriend figured you could scare your wife into a divorce, but things went pear-shaped and now a gang of cranked-up Mexicans with latex gloves and a pit bull are looking for you.  It seemed like such a good idea at the time."

--

What I'm going for with Fiasco is a kind of gasping laughter.

It's the feeling you get when you watch a character confidently make a truly stupid plan.  Sobchak is going to switch out the briefcases.  Jerry Lundegaard is trying to swindle his own hired thugs.  Two health-club employees want to blackmail an ex-CIA spook.  You hear the plan, and you say, in a horrified whisper, "Oh god that's a terrible idea."  But at the same time, you're laughing, because it's just so bad, and nobody seems to realize it.

Fiasco is a show where characters will make disastrous plans, and those plans will turn out badly, and they'll try to dig themselves out by... making even worse plans.  And the whole time, everyone involved, cast, crew, and audience alike, are thinking "Oh god, no!" while giggling maniacally.

And this is very specific kind of humor I'm going for.  It's not bits.  It's not meta.  It's not winking at the audience that, hey, I'm actually just an actor, and this character isn't *real*, and so we certainly shouldn't *care* that he's probably going to get himself killed.  We can be as funny as hell *within* the world of the show, playing our blinkered, doomed schemers to the hilt, but once those stage lights come up, we do not set foot *outside* of that world.  Yes, mistakes are still gifts, but gifts *within* that fictional universe.  We don't let the audience off the hook.  And the audience's laughter is, as much as anything, an escape valve from the sheer avalanching disaster that they're bearing witness to. 

Think of Blood Simple and Burn After Reading as the dark and light ends of the spectrum for Fiasco.  Yes, many scenes will be funny.  But some scenes will be scary.  And some scenes will be sad.  Hell, most scenes will have elements of all three.  We need to not sell out the story, so we can maintain that spell, and thus give ourselves room for *all* of those different types of scenes.  We're not pretending it's not improvised -- we're not trying to trick anyone into thinking this is scripted -- but our improv is less, "Hey, here are some dudes shootin’ the shit and makin' up jokes," and more, "There is no script, so there's no plan for this disastrous chaos.  The whole thing is flying apart.  Nobody is safe".

An important distinction: the overall *arc* is chaotic; the *scenes* are not.  The arc is a giant unpredictable mess.  The scenes are patient.  The arc is busy.  The scenes are clean.  Think of the show as a mosaic of simple scenes, straightforward "<x> is angling for <y>" exchanges, that add *up* to that giant cluster.  Or look at the source material: even midway through Miller's Crossing (the Primer of Coen films), in individual scenes we know who wants what out of whom, and each scene is patient enough to show us how it plays out.  On a related note: we're not trying to deliberately 'plot' that arc.  We don't care about guiding the story so it ties up neatly at the end.  It probably won't.  That's fine.

Again: elegant scenes; messy arc.  Intense scenes; jittery arc.

The show's style will further that "elegant scenes" goal.  I'm not going for realism here, but rather something a little more deliberate.  It's okay if the dialog sounds like somebody wrote it.  It's okay if the stage pictures look like somebody planned them.  It's okay if the characters are a little more mannered, and a little more heightened, than the people we meet in everyday life.  Now, we're not going full Barton Fink here, but much of the humor and the fun of Fiasco will be getting to play the guy who works his Vietnam service into every conversation, or the unbelievably skeezy small-town private eye, or even the self-described widow who insists that lots of respectable people get hit by trains.

Side note: in my heart of hearts, and this may not be possible, but I'd love it if the show can play off of situational irony: that is, when the audience knows something that a character does not.  In our source material -- both the storytelling game and the films -- many bad decisions and horrible plans come from how characters can't see the whole picture.  It's tricky to cite examples without spoilers, but, say, Harry Pfarrer going wide-eyed and screaming, "WHO ARE YOU?!  WHAT DO YOU KNOW?!" is a perfect example.  I personally have not seen situational irony used in improv shows[1], and I'd love to see us break it out here.

Improv-wise, this is for people who watched The Big Lebowski, or Burn After Reading, or even Blood Simple, and wanted to play in that kind of a world.  They wanted to play heightened characters, the kind of people who keep doggedly pursuing their goals even while everything is going pear-shaped around them.  And most of all, this is for people who want to savor the thrill of being stupid, being wrong, and going out in a blaze of disastrous, fatal glory.  And it's for an audience that will feel delight and terror as they watch it all play out.

That's what I'm going for with Fiasco.

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[1] Probably because I haven't watched enough Parallelogramophonograph shows.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative
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