"You’re not wearing black."
"Was I supposed to wear black?"
"Didn’t you get my e-mails?"
So started my sojourn as an actor with Jamprov, an evening of improvisational comedy. What followed was a mad scramble - initially for a black T-shirt, later for a shred of dignity - in which impresario Don Slovin and a ragtag band of down-on-their-luck performers (myself included) attempted to assemble a cohesive comedy show at the Brooklyn Lyceum in Gowanus after a mere two hours of rehearsing at the Devi Dance Studio on Union Street. And while initially I wondered whether we could possibly generate enough material in such a short time, I eventually came to worry whether the night would ever end.
"Walk around the space. Get acquainted with it."
The Brooklyn Lyceum, a former bathhouse circa 1910, possesses an attractive, cavernous performance space, yet here I was striding just four paces across, six paces deep before I hit the walls. We’d been sentenced to the snack bar’s adjunct seating area! Navigating around the mismatched furniture, I slowed down long enough to stare through the dark glass panels that overlooked the legitimate stage.
Then Don yelled to move around with more energy.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, you should be a 7," he shouted. Despite his enthusiasm, I felt like a negative three.
"You should be willing to be pushed around a little bit."
At least Don is forthright about his approach. He’ll tell you what to do and why you’re doing it wrong. There’s no time for questions, only corrections. When I mimed a cymbal crash, I was told I was holding the instrument improperly; later, when I admitted I’d made a mistake in a three-line dialogue, Don’s original negative assessment was retracted.
Forsaking the "yes, and" method that’s the cornerstone of modern improv, Don rejoined my scene opener of "You can’t go to the movies if you don’t clean your room" with the brusque reply, "I don’t want to go to the movies. So there."
"Imagine you’re an animal. Use a body part to point at objects in the room. Name them in the voice of this animal."
I chose a snake, sticking out my tongue at the surrounding shambles and the exit signs. (How the latter mocked me!)
After we’d gotten into character, we each took the stage. Sticking close to our own realities was encouraged so the 16-year-old high school student’s new persona was a 17-year-old who attended a different school. Also receiving a thumbs up was a slow-witted 20-something who played a slow-witted 30-something. (Now there’s a stretch.) My own lisping socialite of a certain age was frowned upon.
But that’s who I really am!
"What am I doing here?"
The muddled lesson plan continued. Improvisational structures were sketchily presented, then hastily executed. Most of those present (primarily regulars) were simply getting refresher courses. But newcomers like myself who wondered how any exercise actually worked were blithely told, "You’ll see."
Well I did and it didn’t.
So where was the logic behind this reckless open-door policy and the stream-rolling tutorial? Nervous energy contributed to giddy laughter but the happiest members of the cast were clearly the two latecomers who showed up right before show time. They knew the best approach was to avoid the chaos that preceded.
The regulars appeared at ease with the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants haphazardness, the impetuous changes to the lineup done offstage, even the lack of laughs that greet most scenes.
Some of the audience was smiling, a few giggles occurred. But how much of that was due to the fact that six of the eight present were directly related to the 16-year-old making his NYC stage debut?
My single attention-grabbing moment - when I blurted the F-word in response to a lame one-liner - elicited a raised eyebrow from the mother cradling the baby. (Are you allowed to curse in front of an infant?)
Otherwise, I was thankfully invisible.
Who are these actors?
"Do you do this often?" I asked one of the two latecomers.
"Um, yeah," he responded sheepishly. As we gathered in the hall afterwards for a group hug that signaled my release, Don gathered money from each of the participants. Five bucks a head in this instance. Opportunity comes cheap.
The next day, I received the following email: "Thanks for your talented contribution. Layta, D."
But what had I given and what I had received? It takes a steely kind of actor to survive the grueling hazing of Jamprov.
As for the audience, they’re all in the family.
Jamprovs take place Oct. 9 and Oct.
16. Rehearsals are held beforehand, from 7 pm to 8:30 pm, at
the Devi Dance Studio at 837 Union St. The show begins at 9 pm
at the Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 Fourth Ave. at President Street in
Gowanus. Admission is $5. For more information, e-mail Don Slovin
©2004 Community News Group
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