My Cheeks Still Hurt. I Blame Improv.

Curt Coy, Red Dirt Improv troupe member.

by Joey Rodman

“Curt can guess people’s high school nicknames within ten minutes of meeting them. Curt just got back from Europe, where he spent time training a baby polar bear named Knute. Curt has a great sense of direction and can sometimes be spotted walking magnetic North. Curt believes that it is wrong for you to spank your children, but is willing to do it himself. Upon graduation from OU, Curt was nominated to the Supreme Court, but was unable to make it to the Senate hearings because he couldn’t find any shoes that day. Curt is a friend of Anna and can be found counting ants at the park most days.” ~ Red Dirt Improve Website, Description of Troupe Member, Curt Coy

The weather is trending slightly-weirdly and oh-so-uncertainly warmer in Red Dirt country and since you may be venturing out of your house, we wanted to remind you that the Red Dirt Improv is a viable, if not funky, option.  Joey’s first essay for the RDC was written after she attended her first improv show.  We’re re-posting it this morning in order to give you a little sumthin’-sumthin’ (yes, I was channeling Whitney Houston when I wrote that) for options when selecting where to spend your Oklahoma entertainment dollars.

Ciao ~ Red Dirt Kelly (I don’t know WHAT I was channeling when I wrote “ciao.”  I never say that word. Never ever.)

***

Have you ever laughed so much in one night that your cheeks ache? I went to an improv show Saturday night and my face still hurts a little.

Red Dirt Improv is a local troupe of improv performers and they hosted a festival at Lyric at the Plaza last weekend. Troupes from surrounding areas joined in to compound the weekend funny factor.

Even though I’ve been to tons of open mic nights and stand-up comedy shows, I was a little apprehensive. People were going to be on stage doing… well, they didn’t know what they were going to do.

The idea that maybe this wasn’t going to work out so well occurred to me.

If you’ve ever seen a stand-up comedian bomb on stage you’ll never forget that unnerving feeling, and they actually practice their act! These people were going to get up on stage and improvise…the potential to end badly was real.

Improvisation doesn’t usually work out for most of us in real life.   In fact if you’ve ever been suspended from school or kicked out of a store it was probably due to improvisation right? (*appeals to your sense not to leave me hanging*)

Right. Anyway, all I’m saying is that I went in to the situation more than a little suspicious.

I bought my ticket, went in, sat down, and surveyed the scene.

I have not seen a crowd this diverse in a long time. There were all types of people surrounding me:  Young and old, counter-culture and traditional, blue jeans and sequins.  I began to wonder if I fit in.  Then I began to wonder if anyone ever really fits in anywhere.

My existential quandary was interrupted when I realized that something on stage was about to happen.

The house lights were lowered, a spotlight clicked on and a man appeared on stage.

Tyler Bryce - image from Red Dirt Improv

His name was Tyler Bryce; I know that because he told us. I got the feeling from the audience that everyone else in the room already knew who he was, however, and began to feel that I wasn’t fitting in. He talked about other people performing that evening and people who were in that week for a workshop and all those he announced received genuine applause; people were excited about this. I had no clue that Oklahoma had its own little improv culture. I was pondering the implications of this when the show started.

Watching improv is an interesting exercise in itself. You find yourself getting attached to characters. It’s strange. Actors take center stage and improvise a scene using suggestions from the audience.  The first group was given the suggestion of “80’s T.V. shows.”  Two characters took center stage while the others stood on either side watching for an opening they could use.   They then would run in and “tag” the actor they wanted to leave. These switches were so smooth you barely noticed it after the first few times and the story became more real. The characters became real.

Christopher Curtis - image from Red Dirt Improv

I caught up with Christopher Curtis (member of Red Dirt Improv) and asked him a few questions:

Do you ever notice people getting really attached to these characters that you’ve made up on the spot?

All the time, which is again part of the magic of improv … the fact that people respond to it. Especially in those scenes where you keep the same character for longer, people do find attachments to them. Often times if it’s that character that gets picked on or is the underdog –  that’s usually who the audience is going to choose to love. It’s always wonderful to get to be that character…and it’s also wonderful to get to pick on that character and then later they get to come out on top at the end, some kind of moment where you get to see them shine…the tables are turned.

He was right! I did feel sad when the character got rejected. I was uncomfortable when he was uncomfortable. I shifted in my chair at the same time he did. I was engrossed.

Before I know it, the first group exits and another takes the stage. The actors don’t need many props. Tonight there are a few chairs (the lightweight stacking kind) and a big purple box – wooden with a hinged lid. The suggestion called out from the audience was “spongeworm”; I’m beginning to get nervous again. What were they going to do with that?! “Surely, this whole improv thing is a bad idea,” I bemoan to myself.

Have you ever had an audience that would not suggest anything workable? Just like, really bad suggestions?

Anything is workable. We try to encourage people not to suggest bodily functions. If we get that kind of thing we usually keep asking, and people will respond. People will always respond, occasionally we’ve had times where if you have a really small audience, if they’re kind of new at improv they’re kind of shy but we can always get them to say something. We will take anything, we try to stay away from the really foul stuff, but if it’s an 11 o’clock show somewhere we might say “Enough okay! If that’s what you want we’ll give you that.”

Anything is workable? Even “spongeworm?” Yep. Suddenly we are in a place and time where intergalactic travel is common and talking spongeworms grant wishes. In this world there’s a space chariot (read: purple wooden box) that needs a little push. One man hops in and the other one laboriously pushes until the thing moves about 3 inches. He’s really trying hard, his face is red and the darn thing won’t budge more than a few inches at a time. He stands up and says something to the effect of “have you ever had one of those moments where you’re pretending something is hard but it actually is?” …

The remainder of their time was spent playing different characters in this space-saga, but always trying to get the other to push him around in the box. It really was hilarious. Well, I thought it was. I think the man behind me was getting a little bored. I mean I don’t know if he was but he was kicking my chair a lot. I began to wonder what would happen if something wasn’t funny.

Have you ever had a joke that you thought in the moment was going to be really funny but it just fell flat?

I think everybody has those. The beauty of all this stuff is, it’s all in the moment. They’re often more surprising that there are things you’re doing on stage and you don’t realize how funny they are. You get caught up in a scene with a partner and you say something and you’re sort of aware and like “I didn’t think it was going to be that funny.” Sometimes it’s the juxtaposition of something normal against something really kind of bizarre and out there against something completely normal and you have alien robots having a discussion about their relationship and it sounds just like your parents. They have the recognition of something they know in the context of something weird and you get laughs that you don’t expect.

The juxtaposition played out in the last act of the night when Red Dirt Improv took the stage. They didn’t take suggestions from the audience, not directly anyway. What happened is that another man took the stage and HE took some suggestions from the audience, crafted it into a monologue and the actors made up scenes from his monologue.

It sounds a bit convoluted as I type it, but it really works. I laughed so hard I almost cried….and in the midst of it all I forgot about my anxiety about it not working out. I forgot about what my plans were the next day. I forgot about the record I bought down the street prior to the show.

None of those things mattered anymore. For me, I could get attached to the characters, continue my hurt-face-laughter, abandoned my anxiety and existential thought processes and enjoy the fact that improv in Oklahoma is a really good thing.

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