FST actors perfect the unpredictable skills of improv comedy.
“Comedy Lottery” suggests a little-known story by Shirley Jackson. A story giving new meaning to the term “die on stage,” perhaps. Actually, no, not perhaps. The “Comedy Lottery” in question runs every Saturday at Florida Studio Theatre — an improvised play every week. The actors make it up as they go along.
So, what’s going on backstage? How do you prepare for something like that?
Improv, by definition, has no script. You don’t know what you’ll be doing, so how do you rehearse?
I pose these question to Will Luera, FST’s director of improv. According to him, you play games and get real. And not necessarily in that order.
He invites me to a sample rehearsal at Bowne’s Lab to show me what he was talking about. I walk in. Within seconds, five actors bound up on stage: Christine Alexander, Adam Ratner, Katelyn McKelley, Joey James and Will Luera himself. Then, to my untrained eye, they start messing around. First, word play …
Luera hits them with nonsense phrases starting with “Z.”
“Zip! Zap! Zop!”
The actors reply. They keep talking nonsense, but they give it spin, emotion, inflection. The nonsense words become a nonsense conversation.
After that, they start tossing around imaginary colored balls. Physical play, not verbal play. And that’s just basically the warm-up.
Now the actors get serious. (Or not.) They leap into a round of improv tag. Two players relate to an agreed-upon imaginary object. Another player tags in; one leaves, and the new player changes the agreement. The thing you can’t see turns into something else you can’t see. A bag of imaginary dry cleaning in James’ hands turns into an imaginary baby. (“You’re holding it wrong!” says Ratner.) The actors also change, and specific characters emerge: Alexander’s self-absorbed Vallery girl, McKelley’s sitcom housewife, Luera’s hustler and Ratner’s earnest seeker.
Right now, Luera leads Ratner to an imaginary pool of something bad.
“Well, son. I want to leave you my legacy — the sewage treatment plant. Today, all this crap is yours. You’ve earned it, son.”
Ratner looks like he’s going to cry. Perhaps the touching gesture, perhaps the imaginary smell.
More mutations and permutations ensue. The characters perform their own liposuction, herd cats and repair small appliances. And finally …
Ratner and Luera reprise their father-son team.
“Well, Dad,” says Ratner. “You gave me this plant. Now I’m taking it to the next level. Ever see ‘Soylent Green’…? Well, you’re not only going to provide for the family. You’re going to feed the family. Step right this way …”
Luera sticks a toe into imaginary muck. Then steps in and starts sinking down.
“This actually feels worse than it looks,” he says.
The imaginary muck consumes him.
And that’s how you prepare for improv.
“I compare the process to sports,” says Luera. “Basketball players practice layups, dribbling and jump shots in anticipation for the actual game. We practice improv techniques: dialog, creating characters, being in the moment and riffing off other actors, and so on. We don’t know the scenes we’re going to do. We know what the scenes are made of — all the bits and pieces that go into each scene. That’s what we rehearse.”
The five actors I see today are part of FST’s pool of improv talent. They won’t necessarily be the ones I see in an actual performance. And I’ll never see the same performance twice.
So how does the script-free “Comedy Lottery” come together? Chance is the playwright, according to Leura — with a little help from the audience.
“We start with a bucket of 50 or so improv games,” he says. “We go out in the audience and pass the bucket. Twelve people pick 12 games at random, and that becomes the spine of our play. About five minutes before curtain, we write out the order, then it’s show time.”
Hectic process. Aside from generating laughter, it teaches useful life skills.
“You learn to think fast and think on your feet,” Luera says. “On the flip side, you don’t want to think too much. Improv teaches you to trust your gut and intuition; you learn to stop second-guessing yourself. On the improv stage, there’s no time to analyze —you’ve got maybe half a second to act. Your heart and brain hand you an idea — and you trust it, you do it, you commit to it, and see it through to the end.”
Ah. Luera’s be-here-now philosophy strikes me as very similar to the martial arts concepts of mushin and zanshin. Being in the moment without preconceived ideas. Being ready for anything, but not anticipating. Aside from the fact you’re trying to make people laugh — not beat them up — there are many similarities.
Luera smiles at the comparison.
“Yeah," he says. "We beat you up with laughter. You might bust a gut — but it’s a painless process.”