Cindy - Column for 11/9

The Next Great Threat

So I caught a quick clip on the news the other day. Apparently, in our increasingly complex and dangerous world, there are more and more methods that terrorists can use to communicate messages to each other. This particular story was about how Napster-like file sharing utilities can be used to disseminate files that look and sound like Metallica mp3's or grainy copies of the Rob Lowe video, but deep within their code might be concealed instructions about the next big terrorist attack. Not that there's any evidence of such a thing. But it could happen.

In short, um, the recording industry thinks we should be deeply suspicious of any and all entertainment that we didn't pay for, and um, they would appreciate it if anyone writing future anti-terrorist legislation would, if it's not too much trouble, suspend any part of the constitution that might prevent them from sending special assault forces after teenagers downloading the new Limp Bizkit single.

So I got to thinking... if this is the new world we live in, and it's totally ok to scare people into self-censorship, and generally use fear to manipulate the system towards your own agenda, how can I get in on this action? First, radio stations stopped playing REM's "It's the End of the World", next they set to removing all images of the World Trade Center from dvd's of "Escape from New York". What's next? What really NEEDS to be censored?

And then it came to me.

If I play my cards right, I might never again be asked to attend Improvisational Theater.

I mean, honestly, those folks could say ANYTHING. The audience could tell them they were at a singles' bar, or in a Hitchcock film, and one of the "actors" could slip out a line like "80 Eagles Fly at Midnight" -- and while the actor's friends and housemates were busy laughing like it was funny, a shady individual in the back could be looking through his code book, tying target 80 (the Golden Gate Bridge) with method Eagle (suitcase nuke, retrieve missing pieces from agent Midnight).

Not that there's any evidence of such a thing. But it could happen.

Best of all, though, ours could be the last generation to have to endure the terrors of Improv. Oh, how I despise it.

The audience picks a place! A scenario! A film style! And it's either a group that's wholly new to Improv and they cobble together something thoroughly lame, or it's a veteran Improv troupe who's already done Bergman porno films in igloos so many times it's boring for everyone involved. "Does God Exist? My penis has frozen off! HaHaHa!"

There are thousands of great plays that are never put on. Works of genius with carefully nuanced dialogue, deep philosophical undertones, brilliant comedic turns. The Spanish Renaissance alone has literally hundreds of extant plays waiting to be translated, most of which are said to put Shakespeare to shame, and haven't been produced in four hundred years. But those would require research, and costumes, and actual talent. It's much more fun to just "see what happens" when you tell a gaggle of "Comedy Traffic School" instructors to pretend they're all pirates, right?

Now, I have a number of good friends who get a lot out of Improv classes, and I don't mean to spoil their hobby, but it is NOT meant for public consumption. It's meant for honing your skills as an actor, learning to think on your feet, being in the moment. These skills will pay off in your daily life, and if you do any work as a performer, they're crucial. But as an art form unto itself it's like watching a painter mix paint. Like going to an Olympic track event, watching the athletes stretch, and then heading home to say "Ooh! Did you see that knee bend? I bet he could run really fast if he wanted to!"

Improv is like sex. It's loads of fun for the individuals involved, but no one else wants to see it. Ok. Bad analogy. It's like really ugly people with hairy backs and pimples on their butts having sex. Only people who really miss the 70's want to see it.

My worst experience with Improv was back in graduate school where I served as the assistant director to a deeply warped man who felt that everything that is good in theater comes from on-stage spontaneity. Once, during a free-for-all "energy workshop" he had 20 or so students running around at top speed in the dark. After two had fallen and twisted their ankles, I mentioned that this was getting out of hand.

"No!" he said. "Art is supposed to be dangerous!"

I considered for a moment saying that it's supposed to be a very different kind of "dangerous", or that at least rehearsal isn't supposed to be dangerous, but in the end I knew my job was to collect five graduate-level credits for fetching him coffee and I kept my mouth shut.

In any case, for the first two weeks of our six-week rehearsal schedule, he had his actors "Improv" every scene. They were to say their lines, follow their blocking, but to come out with whatever kind of character suited them that day. And they came up with some fabulous bits. Seldom at the same time as the other actors, but each one, at some point, came up with a piece of that genuine spontaneous brilliance the director was looking for. They loved him for it, and for a brief moment, I thought he might be on to something.

But when weeks three through six came along, they were never once told "Oh, that's good. Remember how you delivered that line, and stick with it!" No. It was Improv Every Night. Do it differently this time. Now do it differently again. Now again. Let's re-create the Magic! Only not like last time! Oh, how they loathed him. I received daily bits of gossip that the cast was ready to mutiny and ask me to take over. Not that I was a great director, but I did possess the magical ability to say "That works! Keep it!" During actual performances, the lead actor routinely did his uncanny impression of the director, while playing the role of a mad Spanish king.

At the after-show wrap-up, there was a discussion of whether the director really felt his improvisational approach had been successful. He thought the play was brilliant, despite what anyone else thought. He admitted that it was "uneven" at times, but felt that if all the right random elements had come together at just the right times, it would have been a truly magical experience.

Not that there was any evidence of such a thing. But it could happen.

Columns by Cindy