My fourth improv class wraps up last Tuesday. Drifted into after the sublime release of the Improv 200 performance, the 300-level class has brought the kind of growth that feels uncomfortable and aborted while it is happening, but becomes apparent when the skills are put on display. The work seemed easier, inertia having crossed over from fumbling doubt and reticence to the beginnings of rhythm and release. Scenes come together as often as not. We become a little bolder. Our instructor calls us assholes and even the assholes laugh.
We have not practiced as much, though we have a few outside of class. The week before the show does not have that same sense of crawling electric dread, at least to me; the others seem less driven to criticize and while not confident not wracked with doubt. At the one practice I attend, people are willing to be freeform and unstructured in a way they never have before: that spot on the ground looks like a wolf’s head, then follows fifteen minutes of dada ripping on heads in the floor, existential disappointment, and I can’t remember what else. I don’t feel ready but I don’t feel unready enough to force myself to other practices. I don’t feel as though I am already disappointed.
Some of us meet for a last practice a few hours before the show, leaping around and word-associating before some one-act tag. My attempt to turn a leaf-raking scene is jammed by my saying “smoke jumper” instead of “arson”, which leads most people thinking we’re putting fires out. Fortunately only the room and turned-off TVs saw it. The walk to the theatre seems lighter and faster than the same walk two months ago. One of us has not performed publicly before, but he doesn’t have the nervous, hyperventilated mien I did. It feels really great to be done, we tell him. I bet, he says.
We arrive in time to practice with others. The game is I am a tree, a free association game which allows me to be Frank Zappa a couple times. A woman in the 400 class even incorporates 200 Motels, Zappa’s weird movie, a weird and resonant serendipity. I feel energized but not so much anxious. I am more concerned that a group of people I used to work with is meeting in a restaurant nearby and I haven’t had time for them.
Decisions are made about scenes and timing. We all agree to be in one, some in two, but the expectation is that people will come out as needed, if they are needed, thus providing more opportunities. A solid thing I learned is to go first, which is the biggest catharsis, so I go first with Alexandra and Chris. Chris, as always, seems collected; Alexandra, as with the past few weeks, seems distracted. There is no arguing or cajoling. The list is written on scrap paper in pencil.
In the booth we practice some more, going around and telling a story one word at a time. My feet are hot and the small of my back hurts, leading me to do a floorbound stretching exercise whose bizarreness doesn’t concern me. The 200 class practices and gets pep talks in a back room. I hide my coat in an ottoman and see them, but do not watch. They do not seem relevant to me, distant and unknowable.
Chris is peeing in the bathroom with me. He usually wears flipflops to class, and I have been barefoot for most of it, but tonight we both wear shoes, as instructed. Things must be serious.
The show starts with us sitting in the back row, watching the introduction we could not see two months ago. They come out for scenes two and three at a time, slowly, with cautious energy. Two of the women are more confident and dominate. As a whole they get some laughs. I get up to pee a couple times, and, amazing, pee. Coming back Will gets up and makes a motion. Someone looks at me and I nod and follow Will. I think we have received the signal to go down behind to come on next, but I’ve jumped the gun. We mill around in the front lounge and struggle to be quiet. Everyone has nerves but not like last time.
We begin a silent practice. New and instantaneous, we are like cats gone crazy at five o’clock and someone home to feed us: pounding chests, yelling, hurling giants, but all silent pantomime. In a small circle at the top of some stairs, feet from the stage door, we write and lie dead and stomp around, only breaking to urgently whisper to be quiet, the stage is right there. I had a powerful feeling of being a child, running through the playground or stomping in someone’s bedroom, being a monster or an astronaut or making the craziest face or weirdest noise I could. Some point before high school this was all fine, or fine enough, everything larger than life. It’s easy when nothing is real and you haven’t picked up on shame.
A little winded, generous applause comes from within the black door. The door opens and the 200 class files out to our applause. They look as if they have been tried as we tell them good job and yeah. Tim, our instructor, says okay and we pass through the door. Tim walks on stage as we bunch in the small, hidden vestibule, and explains the class is about character development, narrative expansion. We are introduced and walk out to applause and announce our first names.
The show is a blur. The first scene with Chris and Alexandra has something to do with a lawyer and client, as I have opted to forego my usual trap of being clever and asked the audience for a relationship between two people. There’s a joke about one option being ten dollars and two options being a hundred thousand, which got everyone laughing and both startled me out of finishing the joke while simultaneously flustering me out of conscious frustration and anxiety. Suggestions for emotions for each of us to play bring enthusiasm, tenderness, and (predictably) lust, which ends with us all talking about sandwiches; an emotion for all of us is terror, which apparently has us fearing zombies that eat sandwiches. In the midst of it, standing on stage does not seem to be the all-powerful nexus of reality that it was two months ago. The feeling is heightened but measured, and my mind works, and I remember what is happening. It seems good enough: there are some laughs and dense applause when we exit. In the dark vestibule, I realize I am drenched in sweat.
The group has scenes about digging a triple-wide grave, eggs benedict, and Siamese triplets separated by chainsaw. All seem well-done and all seem dreamlike, both present and far away in space but not in time. There is an ease about it which I think is about more than going first. There is no feel of a precipice.
Tim comes to tell us there’s one more scene before we’re out of time. The scene goes, the audience applauds, and we walk on and off stage into intermission. It is over and there is release, but not the wild ricochet to a breathless stratosphere of two months ago. It’s not disappointing but it feels different, like some innocence lost. It’s all smiles. Tim buys us drinks and people seem amazed they did well without drinking beforehand.
Back in the dark, I watch the 400 class perform. They seem slow and unpolished; half the people seem to wander without conviction, waiting for something. I don’t know if that assessment has any truth. I don’t want to judge anything, meaning judgment does not interest me.
The show ends to congratulation and mingling. Tall John has officemates in his cheering section, mostly the type of loud, confident Asian woman that wear white leather jackets. Chris’s quiet significant other is there, smiling in brown-haired quiet. Everyone is in high cheer even though it means class is over. Out in the lobby Tim congratulates us, gives lavish, loving notes on how it worked, on how expectations were met, on how good it was, and does so with absolutely no fawning. Somebody asks, do we pass? He says: Yes! Christ!
There is disorder of where to go afterwards, if anywhere, opinion split between the bar next door and karaoke in a different part of town. It’s Wednesday, already 10:30, and everyone has some morning responsibility. It feels clean and neat and expansive and well-done like something that has been done well before, and tidy, with Wednesday night having everything empty. I am standing in the back of the audience and then in the lobby and then outside, and I realize all that is left is to go home, really.
Other Tuesdays and Wednesday nights out of the long past come up to me as I cross the streets, avoid the homeless with shopping carts, tell the kid with hundred dollar shoes I have no change. Dark flat prairie nights of driving home–from piano lessons, from night classes, from therapy–feel less bleak than Monday, but still thin, lacking. Even now it is hard to think what the sense was, then, under the mercury vapor lamps, at stoplights, waiting for the light and something else. The car should be taking me somewhere, but I don’t know where or how. Now out in the street, the show over, it feels completed and satisfying like those nights could never be. I am not sure what that is either, but it feels plain, just the habit of making your way in the world, and things not being so bad.
Down in the tunnel, the schedules have changed, and the next bus is an hour away. I walk to another stop for another bus, through the kids and the burnouts and the pressure-wash trucks, and find the same. I feel good. I am in the city at last, in a way the teenage kid trapped in the exurban nowhere could never imagine, but hoped.
A taxi gets me home in seven minutes for twenty bucks, and I let myself relax in the leather Febreeze seats and feel not relief, but something calmer. Twenty bucks is worth it.