Last week I performed in the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Lottery show. In the Lottery, students in the UCB’s education program are randomly selected to perform alongside members of the theater’s house improv teams. When you’re selected, they call a few days before (see previous post) and then you simply show up the day of the show. Perhaps the best way to describe the experience is to break it down hour by hour.
3:00 I leave work, in Hartford, early.
3:30 I meet Greg, my boyfriend and the only person I know who will witness this lucky performance, at the Megabus stop.
4:00-ish: Bus leaves, commence fretting about the show.
6:45: Gobble down a sandwich in midtown.
7:00: Arrive at rehearsal studio, meet other students selected. There are students from all four levels here; I’m in the highest so at least I have an idea of what’s going on. One of the 101 students is in a 101 intensive so he literally just started doing improv a week ago. My good friend Vlad was also selected and we keep grinning at each other.
7:10: During warmups we, the eight selected, learn that one person has just gotten off a flight from LA, two of us came in from Connecticut, and we’ve got marketers, teachers, and the usual hodgepodge of occupations with us tonight.
7:20: Porter Mason, our instructor, is boiling down all of the Upright Citizens Brigade’s sixteen-week curriculum into a three hour workshop. “This is what a Harold is,” he says, “Someone will do a monologue. Then three scenes. Try to find a pattern. Then a group scene. Then revisit the first three scenes. Then another group scene. Then short scenes where you can tie things together.”
7:30 – 10:00: Rehearse, bond, try to develop group mind in this very short time.
10:05: Walk over to the theater. We pick up iced coffees along the way and chatter nervously about the show. I feel very close to these folks already.
10:30: Enter the theater. Harold Night (an evening of five back-to back house team improvisations) has one Harold to go—up on stage they’re playing with a pattern of famous Italians. I’m too nervous to watch and slip back through the crowds to the green room, which, in my nervousness, I can’t find for a minute. There are something like 200 people int the audience.
At this point time falls aside because I’m sitting backstage with improvisers I have long admired. I can’t bring myself to be witty enough to break into their banter so instead I turn to comforting the 101 guy.
Just before we go on, we stand in a closet to warm up. Trying to be bold, I request a specific warmup. In my group are Kevin Hines from the Curfew, Andy from Sandino, and Ellena from CAPTCHA. Kevin’s the model of professionalism, Ellena is warmer than warm, Andy is being silly. All three points of view are a relief.
We’re the first of two Lottery teams to perform. We are standing behind the curtain. For the UCB experts, this is an ordinary night. Porter Mason goes out and explains what’s about to happen, and selects an Advanced Study student right then and there to perform with us. Although the rest of us have only been together for four hours, and we’ve only been with the experts for thirty minutes, the Advanced Study student feels like an intruder. How could I possibly come to trust this person? I didn’t even hear his name. But now I’m coming through the curtain, clapping (I have a problem—I almost always clap if I hear clapping, even if other people are clapping for me and I’m supposed to be acting cool about it).
We start. The suggestion is Metallica. Three quick monologues happen, and I hear an idea from the first monologue that I love (“I worked security but I was small so I just was just mean to people”), and within three incredible seconds I know I have a great scene initiation and I start to smile. In my head I’m thinking “Keep listening, keep listening, you need to hear it all and have many ideas and at the very least be able to work with other people who were listening better” but now the nervousness has vanished and I just want to knock this one out of the park.
The second the third monologue is over, I step forward to indicate I am ready, here we go and another student steps out, too. I initiate my scene about a high school mean girl who works security in an airport, and just when I think I haven’t planned any further than the initiation, I have no idea where this will go, Kevin Hines is in the security line, too, supporting us and making the scene about emotional relationships. The scene is happening under my feet and it is easy, it is gliding along, and maybe it’s funny; all I know is that it feels good.
The other two scenes happen—a shitty band and an addictive tag-sale—and in the group games, I’m along for the ride but don’t contribute anything worthwhile. I’m just a part of the blob. Again, feels good. We do our scenes again and now it’s going by fast. I don’t feel the ideas pinging around in my brain, but in a way that’s good; it forces me to listen and respond to my scene partners, some of whom have better ideas than I do, and I’m grateful.
And then it’s over, the lights are killed, I immediately think of ten better moves I could have made, but I’m smiling and I don’t care. There’s a little high fiving and tripping backstage. I come out into the audience and watch Vlad work a scene about fasting, and I realize that they don’t tell the audience who are the teachers and who are the students. They’re all just out there, together, finding patterns and games and hanging out in groups. For this night they are one group, levels be damned. The best scenes are the ones where the students are the stars and the instructors make all of the support moves.
Conclusion: the most advanced form of improvisation is support.
And then it’s really over, and we get notes that are really just compliments, and we walk outside and I find that two friends I haven’t seen since high school showed up, and we giggle and catch up, and we all walk down to McManus and have a beer with the leftover performers from Harold night, and revel in our glory. Vlad and I pump Greg for audience perspective. We keep saying, “This is awesome.” Simple and dumb, but who cares. It was.
12:50: “Oh god, it’s 12:50, we better get going.”
1:15: Metro North train to New Haven. We try to sleep but we’re too excited and rehash both Harolds and the workshop ad nauseum.
3:00: Off the train in New Haven, jump in Vlad’s car. Greg demands food (nobody has eaten since 6:30).
3:30 AM: McDonald’s fries and gas station milkshakes for all.
4:15 AM: Arrive home, full of milkshake and improvisation joy.
4:20 AM: Asleep.
8:30 AM: Working away in my cubicle, preparing for another ordinary day.