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Friday, January 28, 2011

In the belly of the Improv Monster

POINT OF NO RETURN: Thats me on the far left
  • Jackpie
  • POINT OF NO RETURN: That's me on the far left
"It looks like the foot's on the other hand now, isn't it, Kramer?" Robert Hays famously asked in Airplane! I experienced some turnabout of my own last night, being a theater critic who stepped into the spotlight for Jackpie's weekly Improv Monster show at the Relapse Theatre. Obviously I can't review my stage presence or the rest of the show with any kind of objectivity, but my impressions may capture a little of the Improv Monster experience for prospective audiences. (For some background on Jackpie, I direct you to Tray Butler's Creative Loafing feature story from 2003.)

In the Improv Monster format (which pops up in similar shows around town), a guest storyteller or "source" shares personal anecdotes, after which the improv team extemporizes short comedic scenes. They don't literally act out the stories, but draw on little details, turns of phrase or overall themes as springboards. January's Improv Monster guests were all writers and journalists, and I was bumped to Jan. 27 due to the Hothlanta blizzard. Based on the guidelines improviser Bret Love gave me ahead of time, I decided upon five possible anecdotes to share and wrote an opening sentence for each of them, with the hopes of drawing the audience's attention without going nuts trying to memorize a ton of text. I wasn't all that nervous until some of the Jackpie people started posting on Facebook how excited they were.

The show started just after 8 p.m. on Thursday, and here's how it went down (sorry I can't remember all the scenes, but I thought it would be weird if I took notes):

Opening act: Laugh Track, who appear to be a younger team of Jackpie improvisers, who each week perform an improvised sitcom. Someone in the audience suggested the title "Horse," so the group came up with "the first and final episode" of a show about a horse camp. Some un-sitcom-like drama broke out over whether a beloved, trained horse was dead and, if so, did that bring down the camp's resale value. One of the performers climbed on heavy wooden blocks and "walked" on them to imitate a horse's gait, showing hilarious comic timing and almost reckless commitment. My laughter was shot through with nervousness that he'd topple over and injure himself.

After Laugh Track finished, the Improv Monster team came out, provided me a warm introduction and gave me the floor.

Story 1: Wearing an unexpected costume in the Festival of Trees parade
My opening line: "Since I'm in a theater, I suppose I should get the cross-dressing story out of the way."
Favorite scenes: The very first improvised scene was probably the weirdest of the night, as two guys played fetal twins trying to decide what gender they'd grow up to be, while outside the womb, the father threatened the mother with harm if she had anything but boys. Of the dozen or so short scenes that followed, the quirkiest line came from some dialogue between two mice in a mousehole, as one proved unable to smell the difference between the housecat and a Brie: "I hear the Brie again!"

Story 2: Seeing an Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on a first date
My opening line: "My wife and I have been married for 16 years, but the remarkable thing is that we made it to a second date."
Favorite scenes: Two aging serial killers consider "going straight," a proposition their hostage heartily agrees with. An elderly woman's visitor scoffs that the zombie at the door is any reason to postpone tea-time (which had classic sketch comedy structure, despite being off the cuff). At least two scenes ended with someone's brains being eaten.

Story 3: Making a surprising discovery about The Ten Commandments in my freshman dorm
My opening line: "I practically grew up in Christ the King Cathedral, which is only a few miles from here on Peachtree Street."
Favorite scenes: Part of the reason I picked this one was because I thought it would provide the performers with plenty of inspiration, and I think I was right. A junkie approached a street dealer for bread and wine from the Eucharist. A corporate-style brainstorming meeting hashed out the optimum number of Commandments: "How about three really strong ones?" This segued into a volunteer testing the efficacy of a single, one-word Commandment, "Don't," which begged the question, "If I succeed at 'don't-ing,' does that mean I still failed?"

Story 4: Going over a waterfall on a high school camping trip
My opening line: "I suppose it's inevitable that if you go canoeing in the North Georgia mountains, someone will start humming the 'Dueling Banjos' music."
Favorite scenes: None. Improv Monster lets the source "bat clean up," as it were, which shows a lot of faith that the guest will end the night on a strong note. I definitely felt like the improvisers were graciously sharing the stage with me, rather than treating themselves as the stars.

Located in a former church basement on 14th Street, the performing space stands adjacent to a bar, which probably helps foster a casual, welcoming vibe: the audience and performers gave me some laughs and lots of warm applause. I'll confirm the performer's cliche and report that spotlights are indeed very bright, and it's hard to see anyone in the seats beyond the first row. Most of my experience in front of crowds involves introducing speakers and moderating panels, so I'm used to having chairs, podiums or microphones. At the Improv Monster show, I sat in the front row during the comedy, then stood before the audience with a lavalier mic pinned to me. I have a greater appreciation of how actors and comedians know what to do with arms, how to stand at ease and things like that. That said, I quite enjoyed myself.

So how can Improv Monster possibly follow me? Here's what's coming up next:

Our February theme is LOVE, featuring comedy from Barbara Tushbant (Feb 3), the music of Monica Nerdkween Arrington (Feb 10), the love story of Dean & Terrie Smith (Feb 12), Creative Loafing's "Sexorcist" Michael Alvear (Feb 17), and Yes Girls star Lemmie Lickett (Feb 24).

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