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Pulling Me Back In
by Jake Arky

"Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos. From the beginning it was never anything but chaos."
—Henry Miller, TROPIC OF CAPRICORN

Does it not seem that the tide of improv washes in new, fresh faces as soon as it carries out old forgotten ones? The veterans of impromptu comedic chemistry are long, stringy clumps of brown algae, clinging to the sand as the riptide threatens to pull them back into the ocean. In short, you’ve got to be strong to survive on and off the stage in “the business we call show”, to quote John Cameron Mitchell.

And if that’s too faux poetic for you, let me ask a little more straight forward question: do all improvisers remain as such, even when they’ve taken their bow off the stage?

I’ve been asking that of myself lately. My background in the Utah improv scene ranges from joining Knock Your Socks Off (KYSOff, to the old schoolers) in mid-2002 to co-founder of the troupe that has now become 3.2 Improv in Salt Lake City. For a little over two years, my life mainly revolved around my next fix on the stage. I was an improv junkie and would throw my back out if it meant that I could ascend on the stage for the opportunity to “Yes and…” with my fellow comedy tweakers.

"Perhaps it was simply that taking a break loosed my system from bad habits corroding my improv machine for a while."

But like a stalk of Kansas corn, I grew up. Plucked from the soil at the end of August, 2004, I ventured to New York City to continue my formal education. Trying to keep up with my make’em-up-on-the-spot lessons, I auditioned for the on-campus troupe Dangerbox Improv only to be rejected by them when they picked Michael C. Maronna’s gangly, evil twin. Lacking funds, time, and not knowing anybody in the local improv community, I gradually went cold turkey off the old improv stuff. I stayed clean until I returned home for Christmas vacation. Walking back into Jesse Parent’s weekly improv class felt like getting back into the boxing ring to reclaim my title. I didn’t think I’d do well—after all, I hadn’t taken a hit from improv in nearly three and half months. But to my surprise, I was better than I had been early in the year. I snapped back into my usual methods, feeding off everyone else’s fun and having them feed off of mine. Perhaps it was because it was the first time in a long time that most of the final cast members from KYSOff had been in the same room to do improv. Maybe I had been itching too much to get back in front of a crowd. Or perhaps it was simply that taking a break loosed my system from bad habits corroding my improv machine for a while.

A week later, Tuesday night, I returned to the class. This time, it was the crowd of up-and-coming classmates I had seen during the summer, with a few veterans thrown into the mix. I was ready to leap back on stage for a taste of improvisational comedy I had sampled the previous week. Only this time, I crashed—OD’ed—hitting the lowest of unfunny that each and every one of us has experienced at some point in time with improv. The hiatus had done some damage. I was just to naïve to realize how much I had missed out while I was in New York.

And, oh, how it hurt my little improviser’s pride, being in bed with the sexiest of comedic art forms only to be able to not perform. What a loser…

I stand at that same crux now. In two short weeks, my funny family of improvisers from Utah will make the journey East in search of the lesser known prophet Del Close and his infamous marathon at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. Back in May, it looked like the only chance I’d get of seeing the view from the stage would be if 3.2’s pony got picked. It, unfortunately, did not, leaving my chances grim to none. Several weeks later, my fellow ex-KYSOffer, Erin Anderson, called me up to say that the SLC Skirts were short three of their five members this year. Now, this news was both disappointing and enlivening: on one hand, the SLC Skirts are hands down the funniest female improvisers I know (but a more than honorable mention goes out to Off the Cuff’s Wendy in Cedar City) and it will be sad not to see them perform together. On the upside of the scale, it left door open for replacements, regardless if the skirt was intended to be worn by them or not. As you can probably guess by the set up, I accepted.

Now, the adventure of my 32 size waist fitting into a much smaller size of skirt begins.

" That has probably the best improv experience I’ve had in a long, long time."

As the days to the festival count down, I find myself wondering more and more if I’ll be able to rock the Casbah with that sexy beast: long form improv. Sure, if it is only one performance, I might not have to worry so much about trying to make magic happen twice. As Christmas break 2004/2005 came to an end, my friend and the artistic director of 3.2, Mr. Scott Alan Curry, wanted me and him to open the show with our two man show HomeBrew. I agreed and it was a good thing I did. That has probably the best improv experience I’ve had in a long, long time. I probably won’t do anything that gratifying for a long time.

But it’s hit me over the past few weeks that I never stop improvising— ever. Especially living in New York, a city that forces you think on your feet, I’ve relied more on my instincts rather than planning ahead, plotting the future, and trying to impose an agenda on others. That plane just doesn’t fly. It amazes me to hear from the people I used to know who do/did improv about their experiences in the funny spotlight, which usually can be broken up into two categories: a) they are slightly depressed, agitated, or moping that they have no show with an audience to perform in front of. These improvisers cannot wait to get in front of a group of people in order to produce laughs. Then there is category b) these people are happy, content, and genuinely grateful individuals for their time on stage, but have come to realize that every day is a performance of improv, the so called Life as a Harold way of life, complete with callbacks and scenes based in relationship. They no longer worry about the audience because it’s only for the ones they love or themselves, no assembly of others required.

Right now, I’m living with the third option of c) = a) + b), where option c) is somewhere in between the exponents that make it up.

Once you start improvising—hell, even before we officially see our first Quick Wits show or take our first Off The Wall class—we cannot stop. People are always checking in and never fully checking out. Take a number G-Unit; I’m an improviser for life.


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