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

Monday (11/9/09) 12:57pm - ... wherein the Dickens show gets started.

This past week, we had our two dress rehearsals for Improvised Dickens, followed by the show's premiere.

Dickens Dress Rehearsal, 11/2/09
By this point, we all had costumes almost completely sorted.  The previous week, I'd had no costume pieces at all.  Then on Sunday the cast had gone on a costume-shopping trip where I picked up a $7 pair of gray wool slacks and a
$20 vest.  With that, I could just wear my usual dress shoes and my white button-down shirt.  It turned out my favorite overcoat was Victorian-looking enough to use in the show.  To finish off the outfit, I took one of the show's quarter-yard scraps of fabric and tied it up like an ascot.  And then I was pretty much set.  (The following week I'd get the pants altered to the right length, and spend $1.25 on a length of black sateen fabric for a nicer ascot, resulting in this outfit.)

bellatrixamici had started in on preparing the set.  The tech booth had some of the music and sound effects they'd use for the show.  This was the part when things came together and it felt like a real show -- which is typically how dress rehearsals feel, I suppose.  But then, I haven't done an improv show that did this much in the way of costumes and set design and sound design.  So this was a feeling I was used to from scripted theater that I was perhaps getting for the first time in the improv world.

The mock-show that night got off to a rocky start.  For the Dickens show, we're opening the longform with a scene that may not be obviously related to the main storyline at first.  It's an interesting compromise between the straight follow-the-orphan narratives of the earliest novels and the "jazz-oddysey"-style narratives of his last novels -- and in fact reflects the structure of some of the middle novels, like A Tale of Two Cities.

So we started that night's first scene.  Both Joplin and I stepped out on stage, and both of us seemed to have very clear ideas of what we wanted that first scene to be.  I was imagining breaking into a country estate somewhere, and he was (I think) imaging something to do with working with a pack of dogs.  So we started that scene with the storytelling equivalent of that awkward moment when you're trying to pass somebody in a hallway, but you both keep trying to pass on the same side.  After a few seconds, we both backed off enough to do the scene together, but we wound up with a scene that didn't make a lot of sense.

After that, we found our footing fairly quickly.  zinereem narrated the story, Joplin played the protagonist, and we got to a pretty straightforward story of bad things happening to Joplin.  We were down a couple people -- we typically play with nine, and we had only seven people rehearsing.  So in the first half of the show, I wound up jumping in as all sorts of secondary characters:  a servant, a priest, a prison guard, etc., etc.  The show went on, but we never quite connected to that cryptic initial scene.  I started hanging back and puzzling over how to start building some kind of connection to that scene.

I never sorted that out -- eventually, Bolden replayed the scene in the main narrative.  So I think that retroactively turned the opening scene into the classic nonchronological gambit where you preview the start of act III at the start of act I.  It wasn't the most Dickensian move -- Dickens often hints at what is to come, but he doesn't explicitly flash-forward -- but it was the best we could do to tie in that scene at that point.

The show that night felt a little jokier than what we'd been going for, but we had the basic structure pretty much sorted.  At this point it was just a logistical problem of getting the opening and closing of the show figured out, and making minor adjustments to the tone.

Dickens Dress Rehearsal, 11/3/09
The next night, we managed the best story we had told so far.  This time we had Curtis narrating and Jon Bolden playing the protagonist.  Amusingly,
bellatrixamici told Jon in the second scene, "You're the protagonist," because everybody's been so reluctant to jump in as the hero in these rehearsals.  We got a basic story where Jon's character was an aristocratic scion raised as a servant who runs off to sail on the high seas in indentured servitude before he finds his way back to his rich family.

That night, I only really did one secondary character.  We had ten or eleven people that night, and I'd done a ton of characters the night before, so I wound up hanging back a lot.

But the one character I *did* do was probably my best work in the show so far.  In one of the shipboard sequences, the cruel captain ordered Jon to kill the ship's lovable old coal-carrier.  So the next scene was naturally the old coal carrier.  There was an empty stage for a second or two as I took the usual newbie hesitating stutter-step in the wings.  zinereem said "Go for it, dude," and off I went as Smithy the coal-carrier.  This was one of the few times I really nailed the physicality (comically stooped over a walking stick, a bit palsied) and voice (Cockney, a bit shaky) for a character.

Also, we've noted that Dickensian characters have catchphrases they repeat ad nauseam -- say Mrs. Gummidge claiming she's a "lone lorn creetur'", or Rogue Riderhood going on about "the sweat o'my brow".  So that time I tried turning that up to eleven -- nearly every other line Smithy said was "These old bones, they don't move like they used to."  And oddly enough, that worked.  It turns out you really can't overdo the catchphrase thing.  I'm told the scene where the hero almost kills Smithy (but can't quite bring himself to) was quite affecting.  Then I had Smithy escape the ship with the hero, only to pass away dramatically just after the hero learned of his true parentage.[1]

At the end, the hero reunited with his dying father and dispatched the insidious villains who had wormed their way into that household.  I sat in the wings and just watched -- it worked as straight-up drama.  It's actually pretty rare for an improv scene to sweep me away with the story to the point that I stop analyzing and just wonder what will happen to the characters next.

After that, we got a bit fuzzy on how to end it.  The hero sort of trailed off, then said, "So.  <pause>  I, uh, guess that about wraps it up for me.  <pause>  Hope you guys had fun!"

Dickens Premiere, 11/7/09
Then on Saturday, it was showtime.

Call was at 6:30pm, and everybody had filtered in by around 6:45pm or so.  I don't remember doing much in the way of warm-ups, at least compared to the rehearsals.  This has been a common thing I've seen in improv shows, and it's always struck me as odd:  people do all sorts of warm-ups for the rehearsals, but when it's showtime, people wander into the green room and spend most of the pre-show time just hanging out.

This did give us time to chat.  At one point, Patrick turned to me and said, in a veddy proper British accent, "What is the is-sue with the peanuts served aboard transatlantic ocean voyages?"  This led to an extended riff on "Victorian versions of modern stand-up routines."  I immediately suggested, "It would be just splendid if Cornwall were to slide off into the sea, leaving the pristine, sparkling expanse of
London Bay."  Patrick countered with, "Who would you estimate is the more racist:  the Irish or the English?  It is in fact the Irish, because they hate both the English *and* other Irish people."

And on and on it went.  ("Yes, I believe that lady in the balcony understands whereof I speak....")

I was satisfied with the premiere.

Okay, it did get too wacky for my taste.  I admit, I can be a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to zaniness in general -- zaniness makes it really hard to incorporate dramatic beats, it usually complicates the story, and all surreal/random improv shows kind of feel the same to me.  Plus, with Dickens -- I mean, yes, Bleak House does have a guy die of spontaneous human combustion, and he does lean on the supernatural in his Christmas books, but generally Dickens isn't random.  Generally, he sticks to reality as it's understood by his contemporaries.  Generally, the random-seeming bits of the books get limited to details of Victorian society that don't make sense any more.

But that's just a quibble about tone.  The show was still sound.  bellatrixamici went ahead and declared ahead of time that Patrick would be our protagonist -- both because he was really good at it in rehearsals and because everybody had been so reluctant in rehearsals to jump out and volunteer to play the lead.  So we got a pretty straightforward story about Patrick.  He started out as an aristocrat's kid ("Roger").  He got sent off to be raised by a Duke as a gentleman.  The Duke mistreated him, so he ran away and fell in with a ship's crew.  He discovered that the ship was kidnapping babies, so escaped from there.  Eventually he found his way back home.

That structure worked well.

Our research and preparation paid off that night.  We had the accents and the language down really well, and we managed to depict various different strata of society.  We wound up with a variety of different settings, though we were a little weak on fully evoking those settings:  nothing had a smell, or a texture, or a temperature, or even much of an appearance.  But at least we *had* that variety of locations, which went a long way towards making the story feel Dickensian.

As for my own work that night, I felt just-okay about it.

My character work was middling, and I kept making weak choices.  For instance, I played Roger's dad, and I played him as appropriately severe and undemonstrative (good).  Then when the Duke came to a dinner party and proposed taking Roger off of my hands, I tried to build up the Duke's status (good).  So I played "being afraid of the Duke" (good), but I also played "being reluctant to send Roger to the Duke".  This last choice wasn't so good -- it was inconsistent with my previous cruelty to Roger, and I would have done better to join with the Duke as another villain instead of waffling about whether I was on Roger's side.

I had a similar problem later on, as Mister Shivers, the Duke's factotum who winds up putting Roger to work on the estate.  My characterization was on the weak side (I kind of wish we'd had a character warm-up before the show), and I played a scene where I started out mean to Roger, and then was impressed with the work Roger did, and then was nice to Roger.  Again, I should have just joined the Duke in his cruelty to make more adversity for the hero.[2]

I also got weirdly out of sync with zinereem, our narrator.  There were a couple of times when I stepped onstage and started a scene just as zinereem was narrating us into a different scene.  I felt bad about that, and wound up hanging back a bit as the show went on.

Side note:  how much I hang back, versus how much I jump on stage and start stuff, has seesawed back and forth through the rehearsal process.  This cast is large enough, and experienced enough with longform, that a longform-newbie like me does have to fight a bit to get into scenes.  If you wait that extra second, somebody else among the cast of nine will step right up to play the character that's been asked for.  So there have been times I've happily leapt in as every character I thought I could do; there are times where I have no idea what's going on in the story and I'm afraid to leave the wings; and then there are times where I happily jump on stage only to collide awkwardly (and figuratively) with the other performers.[3]

That said, I didn't do anything to really torpedo the show -- nothing on the order of "oop-la, I forgot that the protagonist strangled his own father to death" -- and my characters did what needed doing to keep the story humming along.  My problems with my performance are really on the quibble level.

The audience had a great time.  The house was about half full, but they seemed pretty responsive, and seemed appropriately giddy after the show.  And it was a *fun* show.  We had our plot humming along nicely, and we sent cool secondary characters running through it, and we judiciously put in some running jokes.[4]  And even when it got crazy-random, it got crazy random in a fun way.

So:  a solid start to the run, and no doubt we'll build on that to better shows in the future.  Excelsior!

(Side note:  during our show the café was throwing some sort of art-opening party downstairs.  In violation of their lease, they had amplified music.  Jessica kept going downstairs and telling them to turn it down or off.  They kept turning it back up again.  This meant that, several times in the show, the theater had the thump-thump-thump of club music faintly drifting in from the stairwell.  Grr.)

[1] I felt somehow compelled to give a dying piece of advice to the hero.  Then I realized I had nothing in mind to say.  After an awkward one-second pause, I babbled something about "remembering the sea", when I should have made it about the relationship or about the deeper issues in the story.  Ah well.

[2] It's possible Mister Shivers could have wound up being one of those Dickensian characters who *seems* to be nice to the hero, gains the hero's trust, and then reveals that he's a complete and utter bastard.  I still think the simpler choice would have been better for our first time in front of an audience.

[3] The earlier dinner-party scene was another example of this.  There were nine people onstage, all of whom wound up with speaking roles in the scene.  My sentiment was, "Well, this scene isn't really about me, so I'm not going to fight to get a word in."  I didn't wind up saying much.

[4] In an early scene as Roger's father, I said the verb "mark" in my proper English accent.  Topping mis-heard it as "mock".  This then became a rule-of-three gag, where I found another opportunity to say "mark" later on, confusing everybody, and finally used the word "mock" in the final scene.  It was a little cheesy, but it felt good to roll with it.

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Mood: [mood icon] satisfied · Music: none
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