Monday, June 22, 2015

A very short note about a very long improv festival

For the past seven years, the Hideout Theater in Austin has been putting on an improv marathon and fund-raiser. The fund-raiser part is easy to understand: they're raising money for a youth training program scholarship. The marathon part is equally easy to understand in terms of what, but a little harder to understand in terms of why.

In the marathon, eight core performers improvise non-stop for 40+ hours. The first year it was 40, but it's been going up by an hour ever since; this year's show was 46 hours long. Each hour has a different theme or structure; so one hour might be improvised Shakespeare, another hour might be a musical. And each hour also can feature some guest performers. But those eight core performers are there for the whole ride.

"Why would anyone do that to themselves?" is the question you might be asking. Except you wouldn't be asking that question if you were there at the last hour. Instead of performing a lot of scenes, the cast talked about their struggles, both on and off stage, and what it meant to them to get up on the stage.

That last hour was not a great hour of improv, but it was a great hour about improv. It was incredibly moving to hear those eight people--stripped and raw after 46 hours--talk about fear, isolation, separation, self-doubt, anxiety.

And it was so moving precisely because that's what improv is about overcoming. You don't have to be afraid because you're not alone. You don't have to be crippled by self-doubt because if you stumble, you are surrounded by people who will help carry you. Together, the whole cast will cross the finish line; or if you don't make it to the finish line, well, screw it, it was an imaginary finish line anyway, and it might as well be here where you are.

This was very moving to me because I'd been feeling a little bad about my improv skills recently. Last week, I got a chance to play in the Maestro, the longest-running improv show in Austin. For the first time, I was playing on the main stage; and I was playing with a bunch of people who have years more experience than I have. And I didn't freeze, exactly, but I wasn't exactly warmed up. I couldn't really get out of my head. I had OK scenes and I got some good laughs. (When you're playing the Alphabet Game and you have to start a line with the letter X, audiences love it when you pull out "xenophobe.") But I never felt comfortable. I wondered if maybe I'd reached the end of my development as an improviser; or if I was actually backsliding.

Then I saw the last hour of the improv marathon and listened to these crazy, sleep-deprived performers, and I was moved by their openness and their rawness and their sincerity and commitment. That may not be where I am now, but it's an amazing goal.

So if anyone is starting to talk about the cast for next year's 47-hour improv marathon, I'd love to be on that list.

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