Getting the blackout on that show was like being snapped out of hypnosis. What had I done?
A couple of weeks ago I accepted the invitation of the Makeouts to perform in a show at Gotham City Improv. Officially, the invitation was for my two-person group, Swords, but my partner was unavailable for the show.
In an act of boldness (hubris?) I asked Michelle, of the Makeouts, if I could fill the slot myself and perform a one-man improv show. After prudently checking in with her group, she consented to indulge me.
It would not be my first time doing a one-man improv show — it would be my second (video of first one here). But it would be my first time performing said show for strangers, my first time performing in this particular venue, my first time doing it with a strict time limit, and my first time requesting the opportunity to perform such a show (last time it was a last-minute decision).
I was intensely nervous all day before the 10pm show. I worried people would think I was an asshole for even attempting to do a one man show. In New York, the one-man improv show has a semi-mystic cachet. “Did you see the ten year-old amateur video of Kurt Braunohler’s one-man harold?” (Yes). ”Were you there when Ben Rodgers did his one-man cagematch shows?” (No). The only one-man improv show I had ever seen live was during the Del Close Marathon this year, Jill Bernard’s Drum Machine. It was awesome, but nowhere near the sort of show that I could imagine myself creating.
I wondered if I had earned the right to do a one-man show, but I forced myself to push that fear to the back of my skull. I would do it for these reasons:
- It is a challenge from which I can only learn.
- Self-reliance gets my rocks off.
- I get to test my rudimentary theories on the importance of story in improv.
My goals would be to:
- Accept the suggestion, but not rely on it.
- Focus on relationships as the core of the show.
- React to EVERYTHING.
- Build believable characters with real fears and ambitions.
On my way to Gotham, I started thinking about things I wanted to do in the show. I started planning things out in much more detail than I ever do for an ensemble show or a Swords show. I had just seen Superior Donuts with my girlfriend and I thought about implementing some of Tracy Letts’ theatrical techniques, such as the flashback monologue, in my own show. In my head I carefully constructed a show in which the protagonist was dead. I would structure the show with this dead character as the narrator, and flash back in time to critical moments / relationships in his life and potentially even his death.
I caught myself a couple of times. This planning was completely contrary to everything I believed about improv. The point was to accept the suggestion, look into your scene partners eyes, and build. Of course, my scene partner didn’t have eyes. Or, rather, his eyes were my own. Or, his eyes were in my head. Yes. That.
I tried to empty my head of my plan, but it kept flitting in and my brain kept building on it. In retrospect, it wasn’t so much a story that I constructed as a framework, but at the time it felt terribly inauthentic to even be thinking in such a way.
The house was surprisingly packed. It was almost time for the show.
The suggestion was “Taco Bell.” I am not going to detail the entire show, but the basic story is this:
Man leaves wife and daughter to enlist in Military, part to restore his sense of independence, part to live up to his father (a war hero)’s dreams for him.
Wife accepts shitty job at Taco Bell, but is very unhappy and confused by the menu items, particularly the nebulous “Gordita.”
Man is sent to Afghanistan quickly because of unexpected troop buildup.
Woman has heart to heart with friend, who encourages her to pursue her lifelong dream of being a boat captain.
Man is caught in firefight - all his fellow soldiers die. He takes cover behind a destroyed jeep where he encounters an enemy fighter. They hold each other’s guns to each others’ heads.
Wife steps onto a boat for her first lesson. The instructor, Rock, takes her hand strongly.
Man and Afghani put down weapons, tired of the killing, call a temporary truce. Though suspicious, they strike up a conversation about their families. Both have a daughter.
Wife is driving the boat under Rock’s supervision. He is proud of her. He stands behind her while she maneuvers the wheel. She laughs.
Man and Afghani decide they must try to get back to their respective bases. They shake hands. Bombs go off.
Man wakes up in a hospital room in a full body cast. His father is there, though he doesn’t speak. Wife is there too, with baby in her arms. She also brought him a gordita. She feeds it to him awkwardly through the opening in his full body cast.
She says, “I have so much to tell you.”
I have no idea how much applause or laughter there was throughout the show, though I think I remember getting some laughs with the Gordita bit, the Boat stuff, and a couple other running jokes that I didn’t mention above.
Backstage I started to feel very uncomfortable. The scenes between the soldiers are what really unnerved me. To me, they felt very real, but I didn’t know how I could possibly know what that sort of encounter would really feel like. Then I started feeling guilty, like I had appropriated these guys’ lives for my own selfish ends. I actually felt like crying.
After the show, a number of people came up to me to congratulate me, including a few people that I really respect, but I wasn’t in a head space to receive their compliments.
I feel okay now, but that was a sensation I have never felt on the improv stage before. I fully intend to do more one-man shows and explore those feelings more.
So, I didn’t end up using that clever structure I had thought up ahead of time, though my set did end up being a little morbid.
And this show felt very different than the first one I did, though I loved them both in their own ways. What is amazing is that I remember every single beat of both one-man shows I have done, and I suspect that I will remember every beat of every one I do. It is a deeply personal experience, and the adrenal fear burns every moment into memory.
I don’t think I did my one-man show like Kurt or Ben or Jill do theirs. And, if you did one, it would be unique as well. At the end of the day, it’s just you up there, and being okay with that is something to be proud of.