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

Thursday (11/25/10) 4:21pm - ... wherein Peter talks about how he wound up in improv.

I'm still very slowly catching up with the questions from the "8 things" meme.  This is the second half of a question from Patti Thomas.

What got you interested in improv?

I guess if we go back to the very start, we could talk about my family.  I would argue that me, my sister Katherine, and mmy brother Thomas all have a sense of humor that's sort of conducive to improv.  It's never really about setting up punchlines so much as setting up characters and letting them run amok in hypothetical situations.  I always joke that any conversation between two of us will have at least five people in it.

But still, neither of them wound up involved in any kind of improv (though I suspect they'd be good at it), so my doing improv certainly wasn't inevitable.

I suspect that the main difference between me and them is that I wound up doing theater and they didn't.  And that in turn was because of a scheduling conflict at my high school.  I transferred into South Oldham High School (a public school, brand-new at the time) from Walden (a private school founded by panicky rich white people when busing started in Louisville) in 10th grade, and my class schedule was immediately a big mess from the random pile of classes I'd taken at Walden.  I remember getting a phone call the summer before I started at SOHS that my current schedule wasn't working, and I had to, for one period, take either Drama or (I think) Art.

I went with Drama.

To my surprise, I had kind of a knack for it.  And our teacher, Mr. DiCicco, was good at working with newbies like me.  Unbenownst to us at the time, he was also using a lot of solid improv instruction, mostly based on Viola Spolin.  Whatever -- we just knew that, if we were good, occasionally Mr. D. would let us play freeze tag for a while.

I rumbled along through Drama I and Drama II.  I did a play (You Can't Take It With You[1]) and a musical (South Pacific).[2]

Then I wandered off to Rice University, where I was way too intimidated to get involved in any theater.  This oh-dear-I'm-intimidated attitude lasted about a semester, and cheated me out of auditioning for an evidently-quite-good production of Hamlet.  (And to this day, I've still never gotten a chance to be part of a production of Hamlet.  Ah well.)

But I started trying out for stuff fairly soon after that.[3], and started getting cast in stuff from time to time.  Still, improv wasn't a part of that.  There wasn't any improv troupe at Rice.  I did wind up rehearsing with some improv types one night when I was there.  I remember playing "What are you doing?" for a few minutes and being absolutely terrified.[4]

But that was my sole exposure to improv in college.

Just after college[5] I visited Chicago, and that trip included a visit to Second City.  We watched their sketches, and we stuck around for the free show afterwards, where the cast performs some improv as a way to cough up material for future sketches.  My friend Laurence mentioned that this was something I would be good at.  Eh, I'd be alright at it, I thought, considering it about as theoretical a prospect as flying to Neptune.

I also watched the British Whose Line Is It, Anyway? on Comedy Central.

Then:  onto Austin.

Note that I didn't drive until I moved to Austin.  In college, I took the bike (and later, the bus) everywhere.  Then I lived in Boston, where my two-block walk to work passed by the video store, the grocery, the donut shop, the hardware store, and, in case I wanted to visit the rest of the city, the local T stop.

But when I moved to Austin (early 2000), I started driving for the first time.  And one of the first times I flew into Austin Bergstrom airport, I drove right through a stop sign.[6]  I got pulled over.  (The fact that my car still had Kentucky plates:  probably not helpful.)  The cop explained about the stop sign.  We went through the usual procedures.

He asked for my license.

And I couldn't find it.

Later, I'd reconstruct what happened.  They had checked my license when I'd gotten on the plane.  I then put it back in my pocket with my wallet.  Then, when I paid for my parking at the airport, I pulled out my wallet, and my license came out with it.  Then my license fell between the driver's seat and the door, and somehow clattered to a spot right underneat the exact center of the seat.

So they had to write me a ticket, which seemed to irritate them a bit.

Later, I went to the local police precinct to demonstrate that, yes, I had a license.  They told me I still had a charge for driving without my license, and I could take care of this via defensive driving.  So I hunted through the Internet for defensive-driving places, and I discovered that there was "Comedy Defensive Driving" at Northcross Mall.

So off I went to Northcross Mall, where Dav Wallace was teaching safe driving techniques with chuckles on the side.  He worked valiantly at keeping things light and amusing, which wasn't easy because most of us there had had fairly tragic traffic violations.  (For instance, one lady there was an ambulance driver who'd gotten into an accident.  This turned out badly for the patient.)

But, at the Defensive Driving session, I got two free tickets to an improv show at Nortchross Mall.  I had no friends, so I used one of them to check out a show there.  And that ComedySportz show was the first improv show I saw in Austin.  (I was gobsmacked by how they managed to just come up with puns out of nowhere for 185.)

I decided to check out more improv shows after that.  I checked on the Internet and found that the Hideout was putting on shows.  and became something of a regular at the Hideout.  When they first offered classes there, I signed up.  Unfortunately, not enough other people signed up, so I had to wait a bit.  Then, the *next* time they offered classes there, I signed up.  I know Shannon was in my first class at the Hideout -- I can't recall if anybody else from that group is still in the local scene.

I took classes for a while.  There were auditions to be part of the new "We Could Be Heroes" troupe, but I figured I had no business there.  I kept taking classes.  And then our graduating class formed a sort of 'house troupe' at the Hideout, if I recall correctly.  So I performed a bit with 'the rookies' starting in '01, and performed in Micetro (as it was spelled then) occasionally a bit after that.

I never really pursued improv much further than that for the next few years.  I did do a sketch show or two.  I tried forming an improv troupe (First Round Draft), but we did a few shows and dissipated.  I wound up doing a lot of Micetros that didn't make.  And there just weren't that many venues or opportunities... eventually I just got tired of it.  I wound up quitting in late 2004.

I didn't come back until 2007.

By this point, everything had changed.  Now there were two improv theaters (the Hideout and Coldtowne), with gnap! starting to put on shows at SVT.  There were more stages, there were more than a handful of troupes, and the whole scene was just more... vibrant and interesting.[7]

Since then, I imagine everybody's been following my adventures on the various social-networking sites.  I tentatively attended some of the free Tuesday-night improv jams at the Hideout.  I tried taking classes with Shana in narrative and singing.  I tried joining the first incarnation of No Chaser, and one of the first post-mixer troupes, but I just wasn't feeling it in either case.

I didn't really wind up doing much improv until May of '09, when I wound up cast as an 'understudy' for Improvised Shakespeare.  Since then I've been happily leaping from one show to the next; after Shakespeare was Dickens, and after Dickens, I did One More Night over at SVT.  Shana's singing students finally formed a troupe of their own, and I joined up with that.  I tried a couple more improv-mixer troupes, but they didn't last much beyond their month-long runs at SVT.

Most recently, I started doing work with the puppet-improv project, I got to play on a Hideout team for Theatresports, and now I just got into Austin Secrets for next year.

So it's really only in the last year or two that I've been doing lots of shows.  In the eight or nine years before that, I was mostly taking classes, doing very occasional performances, or taking time off.

[1] There's still a poster for that show, with a caricature of me, on the wall at SOHS.

[2] N.B.:  I would pay ridiculous money to get video footage of either.

[3] I never tried out for musicals, though.  I didn't know that there was this thing called "vocal range", and that mine just happened to be lower than most.  I assumed that, because I couldn't hit high notes, I couldn't sing.  Heh.

[4] I remember playing a conductor who instructed his orchestra to "rise to an orgasmic crescendo".  This alarmed the improvisor-in-charge somewhat.

[5] At least I think it was just after college -- I know it happened before 2000, and while Laurence was living in Chicago.

[6] My next time at the airport, I'd see that the stop sign now had blinkenlights all around its perimeter.  I guess *everybody* had trouble seeing it.

[7] I felt a bit like Charlie Brown, whose baseball team demolishes all the competition just as soon as he goes on vacation.

Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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Date:Friday (11/26/10) 6:42pm
I have been oddly proud watching your progression in improv over the last year and a half or so. Not because I had anything to do with it (you've been doing this longer than I have), but because I've always felt some weird urge to be a Peter Rogers cheerleader. Because you are awesome and should know it.
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