Wednesday, January 18, 2012
When I first moved to Atlanta from Miami back in 1998, I wanted to find a place where I could practice my sacred art of improv. I had been doing it since 1984 at that point - in college and then professionally at Mental Floss in Miami. I had been taught by both good and bad improv teachers and like most actors had come to a synthesis of what worked for me - a good chunk of Viola Spolin with a few splashes of Uta Hagen and Stanislavsky. By the time I was ready to start doing improv in the ATL, I had been performing it off and on for over 14 years. You'd think that I would be able to audition and then start performing with a company but as in NYC and LA, many Atlanta companies have a "Pay to Play" (P2P) system. Rather than just depending on ticket sales, subscriptions and corporate underwriting, many of these theater companies have found that there are plenty of actors, actresses, wanna bees and desperate housewives who will pay for the privilege to be on stage with their favorite comic improv actors. What they don't tell you is that they can keep you in that P2P system for a long time until you're "ready" to go on stage and even then it won't be on a Friday or Saturday night but a Tuesday or Wednesday night when they can get your friends and family to pay to watch you perform. You can say that you are part of the troupe as long as you keep putting out for classes. It's sort of like crack - you pay more and more to get a little bit of a high to perform. Oh and you never really get paid - since what little money you get in your paycheck will go right back into workshops - uh show business! Never underestimate how much someone will pay to feel like a star.
I had researched the few groups that were around at that time and one improv troupe seemed to be the most reasonable in price. They had their theater in a very artistry enclave of Atlanta. I had gone to watch their show a few weeks before to see if it was a good fit. It was a very young college crowd but they seemed to stay on a pretty funny intellectual level. I knew the sort of improv pieces they did (if you know the show Whose Line is it Anyway? there are standards like Irish Drinking Song, in addition getting a location and relationship from the audience and creating a scene the spot with your improv partner). I found out after introducing myself to the class that some of the founding members of the group had actually gone to school in Miami and had been to see Mental Floss as students. "You did Fluffy La Puff? Awesome!" said one of the young members. Fluffy was one of my signature characters. "I used to go to Mental Floss when I was in high school." I was hoping that meant I was cool and not old. So after about two years of not doing improv (being a mom of a toddler can put things like that on hold) I found that I was back to where I was when I was performing on a regular basis after about two classes - it's like riding a bicycle - you never forget.
After about four workshops, I got invited to do "Micetro" which is a sort "Survivor" of improv shows. You have 12 improvisors start out in the evening and only one makes it to the end. Sounds like riveting reality TV - the audience decides who to vote off one by one based on how you did in each of the improv sketches. Now, on those "scripted dramas" having folks voted off the island is just how it goes. But for improvisors that are just starting out - it creates very bad acting habits. Rather than learning to support their partner to create a great scene, they try to out do their partner and undermine them to get the most votes. The improv "judges" can give side coaching but let's face it, it's the audience that gets the final decision. So if a new actor saw that they could get a laugh mentioning an jock strap, erection, boobs or cum - they would do it and get the votes. Even if they got warned by the "judges" about being vulgar, once they knew that wearing the scum box ( box of shame that went over the head of performer who had gone too far) was a twisted badge of honor, it was hard to get them back to playing at a higher intellectual level. It' s sort of like sharks that taste mammal meat for the first time - it's quick, easy and very satisfying. Who cares if the blood in the water is your partner's?
So I'd do these Micetro's and get voted out in the first half because I'd refuse to go code blue but I'd try to support my partner the best way I could. After the show, we would get notes and usually Joe, my workshop coach and judge would compliment me and say that my scenes were some of his favorites. He was sorry that I wasn't getting voted through. Then the younger members of the class would pipe up with "But if the audience isn't giving you the votes it doesn't matter how good your scene was." That's when I realized something sinister was taking place - the scenes became more about pandering to the audience - not working with them.
The nights I would get ready to do a show, Max could tell that I wasn't having much fun. "Why are you doing it again - you seem freaking miserable every time you go?" "It's one of the best improv groups in Atlanta and I can make some connections." I would respond - trying to convince myself as much as him that it was what I really wanted to do. One night, one of the company performers decided to perform with us. He was doing a scene and afterwards, Joe gave him some feedback just like he did for all of the performers in the show. The player became incensed, called Joe a facist and stormed off the stage. We thought it was a bit, but he walked out in the middle of the show - I mean got in his car and left. Everyone tried to make light of it, but good God, the guy pulled that right in front of an audience and embarrassed everyone including himself. If it had been my company, he would have been gone or at least suspended for a few weeks. But no, there he was back at a Friday night show like nothing had happened. He did send a note which was read to us at the next workshop - by Joe.
It was the holiday season and I had made my usual selection of cookies and decided to bring a few dozen to the theater before the show. It gave me and the toddler Amber a reason to make chocolate chip cookies, sugar cookies, rice crispy treats, magic cookie bars and fudge. Two of the guys asked if the chocolate chip cookies were the soft batch like the Keebler cookies. "Actually, those cookies are loaded with chemicals to make them that soft but I just made these fresh this afternoon," I said with my best Bri DeCamp smile. "Ah, I really like them soft - hey I bet if we nuke them, we can make them soft." Again, I smiled and said "Enjoy!" They took four of the cookies over to the microwave and nuked them for 10 seconds. Sure enough, they were soft, but the chocolate was extremely hot and burned their hands. When they cookies got cooler after a minute, they were hard as rocks - putrified by the radiation of the microwave. They threw them out and shoved some sugar cookies into their pie holes and walked away without so much as a thank you.
That night at Micetro, I was getting voted through and made it to the second half of the show for the first time. It felt good as many of the other women in the show had been voted off. Then the second part of the show started and I found that I really wanted to make it through to the end - which meant pandering. I had promised myself I wouldn't - but I wanted to make it to the end to prove to myself I could do it. So I made jokes about my boobs or lack there of, groins, premature ejaculations - nothing was sacred. I didn't get the scum box but I did get to the top four before I was voted off. I had made it further than my past three attempts. I should have been happy - but I felt empty. I knew I hadn't done my best work and while the audience didn't know or care - I did. I saw the box that I had brought the Christmas treats in ripped up and thrown into the garbage along with those ill fated cookies. So quick, easy and disposable once it had been consumed.
I thought about that as I drove back on I-85 that night. I was that poor chocolate chip cookie. I wasn't a soft batch - I was me and try as I might I just didn't want to do improv their way. When I did and it made me feel as hard and tasteless as those sweet hockey pucks at the bottom of the garbage can. I had gone as far as I ever had in Micetro, but I didn't want to go back to see if I could win it all - it just wasn't worth it if I was doing the sort of stuff I just didn't believe in. I was sacrificing who I was for the instant gratification of an audience that only wanted dick jokes. In an odd way, it felt good to walk away that night on my own terms.
Now for you improv actors in Atlanta, I want you to understand that this is not a slam against that improv company. They are good at what they do, it was just not the right thing for me. That was over 13 years ago, and I'm sure things have changed. A few years later in 2005, I started with an improv group called Comedy Cobb which eventually got changed to The OTC Comedy Troupe. I got to teach my philosophy of the art. Now I would be a hypocrite if I told you that I never do a dirty scene - but when I do it's because my partner and I are working together - it's a mutual smut fest based on trust. My group doesn't have eight shows a week and our own space like they do, but I love to perform when I can with like minded folks who make me laugh really hard. When I get off of stage I feel good about what we've done. Our shows can be geared to any audience from the edgy college student to kids who still watch the Disney channel. I think we succeed on our own terms and really isn't that all any of us can ask?
So the moral of the story is to know what sort of cookie you are and be proud if it. If someone tries to nuke you to make you into something you're not, just take your treats and leave. Because it doesn't matter how good their bakery is, if you hate their sweets, you'll never be happy. Now go out there and blaze a trail - on your own terms with your own recipe for success - one that you can actually stomach.