Toward the end of my time in theater school, the head of our playwriting department challenged me to write something that I had always wanted to write but never knew how to. I knew immediately that what I wanted to create was Rock ‘n Roll Theater. I wanted to imbue theater with the energy I felt in the mosh pits at Isla Vista’s BIKO co-op or Bad Religion concerts. So I tried writing shows about drugs, and that was boring. So I tried putting punk songs into scenes, and that was pretty lame too.
I gave up on the idea for a while, figuring the answer would come to me when I least expected. And after the formation of Narcissists Anonymous, I felt like I was finally on the right path. Our first performance was a debauched short-form show in Seabert’s back yard, which was cut short after the cops told us to wrap it up. The afterparty, 2 miles away, was also shut down by the police. Very good signs.
After a few shows that went surprisingly well despite that fact that we all ended up drunker than our college-aged audiences, our future teammate, Kyna, booked a show for us at the bar where her band had played on-and-off. When we got there, the bar manager asked me how many guitars we had and if we had enough room to set up our drums. Another step in the right direction.
These moments rolled through my mind as Seabert and I drove down the 101 to represent the Narcissists at UC Santa Barbara’s IMPROVATHON. UCSB is where I had first struggled with the idea of rock ‘n roll theater, and even if it wasn’t fully realized yet, I knew that Isla Vista would provide a pretty raucous time.
Our show was an hour long, and we were the last group to perform before the event’s host, Improvability, took the stage. It is probably best to perform toward the beginning of a marathon festival, when the audience is more awake, but our show was cool nonetheless. Our first 25 minutes we did some montage scenes with a couple of my friends from UCSB’s longform team Sketch ‘n Sniff, and then closed it with Seabert and I performing a 2-person version of the Narcissists longform EGO. The show was great, with each of us playing multiple characters in a story about a jittery jazz lover named Daddy-O seeking the passion he needs to go from voyeur to artist. Beside the chemistry we’ve developed over performing together for years before Narcissists Anonymous was born, what made the show work so well was my current improv theory obsession, having strong viewpoints.
We drained the rest of the beer in our red cups, and proceeded to go to the best improv afterparty I’ve ever experienced. Without going into too much detail, there were old friends, new friends, drinks, pills, powders, and Seabert was about to make a pretty good connection until he couldn’t tell the girl what her name was.
I feel like improv has the power to harness that unpredictable rock ‘n roll energy because it by definition is unpredictable, and fully acknowledges the presence of the audience. While I haven’t crowd surfed at a show yet, it’s just a matter of time.
Now come punk the theater when the Narcissists return to the 50 Mason Social House on July 19th, this time hosting a night of kick ass improv and stand-up comedy. (More details soon!)
Also, on July 9th we will be playing with Chick Flick and Moosehead at the Traveling Jewish Theater. Details here: http://www.facebook.com/events/413665732012925/
We finally touched down and I was able to slowly get out of my non-reclining back seat on the Southwest piece of crap plane. It was about 95 degrees, the air was denser than anything I had experienced in years, and I had packed for a San Francisco May – that is, jeans and flannels. The heat and humidity and rampant allergens did not soil my mood though, because I WAS MOTHERFUCKING IN CHICAGO, SUCKA!!!
Chi-town is the home of iO, Second City, the Annoyance Theater, etc etc ad nauseum, and is heralded as the hub of the improv and sketch communities in America (and has a vibrant and manly theater scene as well). I’ve been pining to make the pilgrimage for years, and my girlfriend’s best friend’s college graduation (on my birthday!) gave me the opportunity and excuse to take a few days off of work and fly to the Midwest. So as soon as Narcissists Anonymous emerged victorious from the Endgames Thunderdome, I took off for Mecca!
This place is fucking huge!!!! I work in the Financial District in San Francisco, and so take my lunch time walks among some of the City’s tallest buildings. Chicago’s buildings are not only taller, but wider (similar to other aspects of the Midwest; read: the people). And the absence of any hills allowed me to see buildings and buildings to end of my eyes’ reach and caused me to feel like I was truly in a sprawling Batman-esque city. I took a class in college about postmodern theater, and Chicago was always described as the home of “tough theater”. This place felt Tough with a capital UFF.
Another huge difference between San Francisco and Chi-town – sensitivity to allergies. I have a lot of friends here in Frisco who are servers, and are regularly drilled on the components of the meals they serve and what type of floral hints are in the wine. I am incredibly allergic to dairy, and went to a “vegan” diner before a night of seeing Harolds at iO. I had a delicious vegan sweet potato quesadilla.
Only it wasn’t vegan. After watching one brilliant, mind blowing scene at iO, my girlfriend forced me to leave because I was visibly turning red and audibly wheezing. My girlfriend really didn’t want me to die, and I was unable to convince her I was fine (I wasn’t) and that we should stay at the show. So there went 18 bucks, UGH.
I slept through the graduation ceremony the next day, endured an extremely poorly timed, post-graduation break-up (not my own), got really high (ironically, on imported herb from Northern California), and went back to iO for Harold night: Round 2.
After drilling an extremely short and linear Harold for our 20-minute Thunderdome set, it was awesome seeing Henrietta Pussycat and the Deltones perform much more open and freewheeling Harolds. Rather than sticking to a strict A-B-C-Game-A-B-C-Game format, they made their transitions by connecting ideas and themes.
For example, Henrietta Pussycat’s Harold began with a scene about kids in detention. The next scene was about sex-games-relationship-counseling. It was largely a gag scene, and so rather than wrapping it up at its logical end, they continued into the future and saw the counselor dealing with his own relationship problems (something that will be easier to come back to later). Once an offer of alcoholism came up, the actor playing the counselor stepped forward and addressed the teacher in charge of detention.
“Hey Teach, let us drink some of the Jagermeister in your desk.”
Everyone instantly reverted to scene A’s tableau, and we were back in that world.
These scene changes, prompted by thematic offers rather than by logical scene ends, created a dynamic and surprising performance, where a beat might take the shape of A-B-B-A-C-B-Game, or something totally different. Less linear than the standard Harold, but with enough focus to avoid the confusing mushpots of truly “freeform” improv.
The Deltones did a musical Harold. It was totally mind-blowing; it was the first improv group I had seen with serious music theory training since seeing LA Impro’s improvised Sondheim.
We also saw a show at Second City (Charna Halpern was sitting right behind us!), cruised Wicker Park and noted the differences between SF and Chicago hipsterdom, and experienced a thunder storm with no rain.
Chicago is a ton of fun, and it was amazing to see such a large and non-nerdy audience for improv.
I’m excited to incorporate the lessons I learned into the Narcissists bag of tricks, and can’t wait for my next trip. Until then, I’ll try to pretend I still think San Francisco is a big city.