Remembrance of Old Dinners

In the summer of 2000, Fuzzy Gerdes and Megan Pedersen asked me to for a list of shows that I might like to direct for the Playground. They were beginning something called the Directors Series for the co-op theater and this would be the first show they would produce. Out of a list of ten, they chose the only show I had done before… Dinner for Six.

The first run, at iO, had the audience choose fortune cookies and then the fortunes would "predict" what would happen to each couple.

Dinner for Six is one of my favorite all-time shows. The premise is simple; three couples have a dinner, we (and the improvisers) discover the connections and emotional strands between them and then they improvise. No other characters, no walk-ons, no tag-outs, just a mix of relationship scenes. It was, I recall, a direct reaction to the wave (at the time) of chaotic, almost nihilistic improvisation.

I’ll probably write more about this show, but for now here are some of the reviews we got for that run at the Playground, including one from the Daily Herald, the longest and nicest review I’ve ever received. (special thanks to Megan Pedersen who archived these reviews.)

 

From New City, by Ben Winters (#3 on “5 Shows to See Now”)dinner for six

Much long-form improvisation founders on the rocks of pointlessness, that barren territory where a lack of raison d’etre tranlates speedily into an absence of punchlines. Not so with “Dinner for Six,” director Jason Chin’s charming creation at the Playground, the first offering in that theater’s promising “director’s series.” Though by no menas without the stutter-steps and meanderings found in most long-form shows, “Dinner” works better than most, because it takes a specific territory- romantic relationships within a small group of friends – and moves within it on various levels. Each of three boy-girl pairings is defined (the mode of audience suggestion is fortune-cookie fortunes collected in a pot before the show), the dynamic of each is explored while the plot moves (somewhat slowly) forward, and some manner of resolution is achieved. The cast is strong, or at least has been led to make wise choices, steering clear of dull guy-are-like-this, gals-are-like-this schtick; dynamic Nicky Margolis landed the best lines at the performance I attended, but all seem a good fit for Chin’s clever experiment.

From the Daily Herald, by Jack Helbigdinner for six

Mini-review: What a joy to watch a young, hip, smart improv troupe play the deeper notes

Improv has been so closely associated with comedy for so long – at least since the founding of Second City in 1959 – that it is easy to forget there is more to the discipline than just cracking jokes. People who do improv on a regular basis know this. The best improv scenes happen when the performers on stage forget about getting laughs and focus instead on building relationships or the scene at hand. Still, audiences by and large go to improv to laugh and even the best improvisers can’t help but give into the universal demand: “Make me laugh, funnyman!”

Which is why it is great that within Chicago’s feverish improv scene performers get together from time to time to experiment with using improv to create something other than the usual sit-com fare. These admittedly riskier shows, usually scheduled at less than optimal times or in one of Chicago’s smaller, more Spartan theaters, allow performers to take risks, emotional, artistic, and comedic risks, they would never take in a prime time venue full of entertainment-hungry citizens.

“Dinner for Six” is such a show. Directed by Jason R. Chin of the ImprovOlympic and starring an ensemble of young, hip, smart performers, “Dinner for Six” is best described as an attempt to create an hour-long, fully improvised play. Lots of people have attempted this in recent years. A full-length play is, after all, the logical next step after the much vaunted “long-form” improvisation (in which actors improvise for 30 minutes or more based on a single suggestion). But successful, fully improvised plays are as rare as Buffalo nickels these days.

Most improvised shows either fall into mere anarchy or one or two very strong performers dominate the whole thing. Jason Chin and company, however, have hit upon a great way to focus the show: from the get-go they know the six actors will be playing three couples, and that these three couples are somehow tangled in each others lives. Put more simply, Chin et al. agree from the start that what they create will have a kind of soap opera-ish quality about it.

The other thing they do is begin every show the same way, with a dinner party, at which each performer reveals his or her issues – those nagging problems in life that add spice to theater. This ritual is very entertaining. It also allows the performers to do the basic background work that gives depth to characters.

The night I saw the show, this scene worked like a charm. In a few short minutes we felt we knew these people intimately and cared about the petty slings and arrows that were bedeviling their lives. That show featured a bohemian couple trying to deal with issues of career and money (or lack thereof); a corporate couple beginning to crack under the pressures of corporate life; and a third, well-off couple ready to chuck it all for a vacation from life.

To their credit, the performers in the show took their time to develop their characters. It was fascinating watching these six working out their various foibles and ticks. In an instant Julia Wolfe, for example, established that she was the lovable, wise, but (potentially) long suffering earth mother, doomed to always play the nurturing role in relationship. Likewise, with just a flash of her eyes and a change in her body language, Nicky Margolis showed us her character was one of those cold, driven, corporate narcissists, who live for their careers – and nothing else. (Disclosure: Margolis is one of my classmates at Second City, where I am currently working out a mid-life crisis learning improv. From the first class it was clear this young actress is bursting with talent, but nothing in class prepared me for the many-leveled, fine grained performance she delivered here.)

And she was not alone. Everyone in this show was working at a level that joke-obsessed improvisers rarely achieve. And here is the irony: they were hilarious. But not in that look-at-me-I-made-a-funny way that people like Michael Myers have perfected. But in a subtler, more sophisticated manner. They earned our laughter by creating compelling, believable people, and putting them in identifiable predicaments.

Wolfe and Justin O’Conner, for example, found themselves wandering through the troubles many creative couples face. O’Conner, a young, callow man in his twenties, cannot decide what he wants to be when he grows up – if he grows up. Wolfe, clearly attracted to O’Conner because he is artistic – he is, it turns out, a talented painter – is torn between her need for a somewhat stable, coherent home life and her need to nurture and support O’Conner. The scenes between these two as they fumble blindly along, trying to solve these issues, are pure gold. Wolfe, in particular, is a strong, sensitive, intelligent performer, able to make any moment on stage feel like the moment. O’Conner holds his own, however, playing the lost boy who suddenly realizes he’s not a kid anymore.

It is unfair to single out these two, however, because all three couples had their marvelous moments. Margolis and Jeff Griggs delightfully danced that all-too-familiar working couples waltz, “My Career’s Great, Yours is Dying on the Vine.” And Mary Jo Bolduc and Chris Gelbach were very fine as the most stable of the three couples, the ones everyone leans on, but also the two everyone secretly resents, because they have got it all together and know it.

I could have spent hours watching these six spin theater out of thin air. As it is, the show only runs about 60 minutes, long enough to entertain, but short enough to leave us wanting more. I’m planning to go back. Maybe I’ll see you there.

From TheatreChicago.com, by Fred Mowrey dinner for six

In their first Director’s Series show, the Playground scores with “Dinner for Six.” The fully improvised show features a look into the lives of three seperate couples, who begin the show by meeting together for dinner and proceed to share the fortunes they discover within their fortune cookies. Playing the same characters throughout the entire show, the actors here bring depth and realism rarely seen in more traditional improvised shows. In between the laughter (and there is plenty here), issues of impotence, economic stress and the breakdown of a marriage can suddenly become a focal point of a scene. Its this realism that really makes this show special. Definitely worth checking out.

Editor’s Pick on Digital Citydinner for six

Fortune cookies collected from the audience provides the basis for this long-form improv piece, the first in the Playground’s new Director’s Series.

Each show is a 60-minute romantic comedy beginning at a group dinner where three men and three women playing couples explore the nuances of their relationships. Reviews have been strong. New City calls it a “charming creation” and the Daily Herald calls it “… a joy to watch…”

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Improv Classes!

I’m putting together what will (hopefully) be a series of classes. I was recently in England and Minneapolis where the idea of the “drop-in” class is very popular and I would like to start something like that here. Of course, these first batch are going to be a bit more structured. The classes below will be held at Sheil Park, 3505 N. Southport.

 

Longforms!

These are the basic building blocks of long form improvisation. Learn from a veteran teacher who has personally directed or performed each and every form in this class. This three-hour class will teach you the form and techniques of The Improvised Movie, the Armando Diaz/Monologue-Based Show and Whirled News Tonight. Jason directed the Improvised Movie for three years at the iO Theater, where he also performs every week in the Armando Diaz show. His creation, Whirled News Tonight, is Chicago’s longest running improvised news satire (nine years!)

Tuesday, May 1st

6pm – 9pm

Limit: 12 students

$50.00

 

 

Once More, With Feeling!

Eschewing the concept of “faster is funnier,” let us explore the world of emotion-based improvisation. Sure, the quick-witted will be hilarious in the short-term… but trust me, the wit runs out! But you, your heart, what you REALLY feel will always be the absolute MOST important thing you communicate on stage. Trust yourself to be yourself. Let’s experiment and open some emotional doors.

Wednesday, May 9th

6pm – 9pm

Limit: 12 students

$50.00

 Order both at the same time and only pay $75!!

Got a question? Want to register? Send me a note “improvjason@gmail.com”

A Message in Vonnegut

The other day I was behind iO Theater. It’s an alleyway with garbage and homeless people walking by when there aren’t improv groups warming up. I found a book. It was badly water-damaged, still readable but with black watermarks. It was a hardcover copy of a Kurt Vonnegut book. When I opened it up I noticed that someone had written a fairly long message in it. I skimmed it and took some photos. I did not take the book; it was too badly damaged. I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing the message within… it’s sad and has an interesting message.

7/12/12

The day after my birthday

Hello, person who found this. Thanks for opening it. This was a borrowed book that got destroyed years ago when I moved with it and our truck got soaked. I had recently had a falling out with its owner. It was a thorn in my side, careless of me and I never righted the wrong. I guess I kept it for years, since college, as a reminder not be a douche.

Only recently have I realized that this was too long a penance to pay. It was a book. An expensive one at the time, and I was poor, so instead I used it as a way to flog myself forever even wronging someone who broke my heart. She was a friend, but not a terribly good one. She is now married to the boy I was in love with, although he would never loved me like her. She liked to taunt and belittle me and I guess that’s what really bothered me. I knew her future husband wasn’t really mine, and I’ve been in that scenario with others but the way she went about it, using comedy performance to continually poke jabs at my open sores, so to speak. You know those folks. And I responded poorly. I took it and kept my mouth shout around her. When others complained of her, though, I jumped in. I became the worst version of myself, bitter and cowardly.

And the worst part? I never even finished this book.

In conclusion

I hope to you and yours, you can read any part of this message or this book and do the following:

1-   Find the best version of yourself + try it out consciously, often

2-   Avoid people who make you your worst or make you feel small (as much as possible)

3-   Let go. Let go. Right wrongs if you must but let go.

4-   Continue to not be a douche.

 

Malling of America

I love malls. I find them fascinating little micro-cultures and marvels of design. Therefore, it was a joy to spend the day at THE Mall of America last week. I had heard the tales and the Mall of America (MOA) was an even grander place than I had imagined.

Now, before any expedition one must fortify oneself properly. Having never been to a Denny’s before, I treated myself to the legendary “Moons over My Hammy.” It was tasteful, but LOOK at how much butter in the grits! That bowl was about 45% butter (which I scooped out swiftly.)

The hotel was staying at said MOA was only a mile away. The internet said it was just under a mile away. After walking a bit, I used my iphone GPS and discovered both my previous information sources were correct IF you combined the distances… it was 1.7 miles away. Not far, but a surprise. But then… it came into view…

 

The Mall of America!

It was rather disorienting. Composed of 4 levels of shops, the rings look down upon the center which is an amusement park! It’s currently a Nickelodeon theme park with roller-coasters, dead falls, and all sorts of machines to toss you and your cookies about. Having no interest in having anything tossed, I decided to just walk around the stores.

While there was no loud Nickelodeon music blaring, the delighted screams of children echo throughout every nook and cranny of the mall. It’s horrifying.

There two paintings of presidents; one of several Democratic Presidents playing pool, another of Republican Presidents playing poker. I liked them both, but I really wanted a painting with a mix of recent presidents… or one of the Founding Fathers… you know BEFORE there political parties… But, no go.. apparently the painter only does it by party affiliation.

 

 

 

 

 

The original Sherlock Holmes stories but with photos from the re-imagined/modernized BBC-TV series. Someone’s going to be real disappointed. There was also a novelization of the John Carter movie. A– holes. Years ago, New Line Cinema asked Peter Jackson for his scripts so they could release the novelization of the Lord of the Rings movies. He told them no, people should read the original novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bloomington Police had a store!! I bought some batons, some pepper spray and a beat-down. They were swift, brutal and polite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Apple Store faced the Windows Store. I went into the Apple Store and took this photo. An Apple employee tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, we don’t allow picture-taking in the store.” I blurted out, “Really?! EVERYTHING in this store has a camera in it!” and I walked out before he could ask me to delete the shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mayo Clinic had several walk-in clinics mostly devoted to preventative care. It was fascinating and smart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some great names for businesses here. The large movie theater is simply called, “Theatres.” There are no other cantinas so why the #1? The House of Comedy is a stand-up club. There was a traveling Princess Diana exhibit. Dresses, photos and stuff. I thought she was very beautiful.

 

 

 

 

 

I was fully prepared to do my American duty and spend at MOA, but all I purchased were some keychains and a very ugly souvenir MOA shirt for a friend of mine. Went back to Denny’s and noticed the Denny’s Lounge. Check out Friday Night… neat way to dodge some gender discrimination laws. Anyway, I got pretty wasted and spent all my $2 bills. Thank you, Mall of America!!

Logic & Magic, Faith & Reason

I just received my poster of this photo. It’s a pic of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and (look how short he is!) Harry Houdini. In the ’20s (and we only have eight more years before we have to start specifying which ’20s’ we mean) they were both involved in the burgeoning spiritualism movement. It’s a fascinating real-life story:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictional characters exemplified science, logic and reason lost his only son in the first World War. Devastated, he was taken in by a medium who professed to be able to contact his son. Harry Houdini, whose stage persona was one of magic and mysticism (he even starred in a film called “The Man from Beyond”) was not deceived by a medium pretending to contact his mother and he spent years publicly debunking and exposing spiritualists.

The two met in 1920 and spent years corresponding and discussing their various experiences and theories. Eventually, their private disagreements spilled onto the pages of the New York Times letter pages and the rift between the two never healed. I find their individual stories fascinating and their combined story even more so.

Here’s a link to a write-up about a documentary on their relationship.

The Improvisers Guide to Making Love

Always heighten the last move.

Strengthen the relationship by making eye contact.

Avoid transaction scenes.

If you’re always high status, try playing low status once in a while… You might like it!

The characters should know each other.
20120412-145927.jpg

Invest emotionally.

Sometimes it’s fun just to be goofy with one another.

Never enter unless you are needed.

Group games should involve everyone.

Never give a scene partner notes.

When it stops being fun, it’s time to quit.

Do As I Say Say, Not As I Do Do

Where is the line between improviser and teacher? Does a teacher have a responsibility to exemplify his/her teachings on stage? Should an improvising teacher be held to a higher standard than, say, a “regular” improviser? Do students hold their teacher in a lesser regard if said teacher is a hypocrite on stage?

I know some teachers, people I admire and respect, who say that when they’re on stage they’re specifically not teaching a class; they are performing for an audience and they have to be free to do what the show compels them to do. There is some credence to that thought… to use a too grandiose metaphor, it’s like book learning in a military academy as compared to actual firefights in the field. The techniques make sense in a quiet classroom, but everything goes out the window once the reality sets in.

For me, when I’m stage, it’s a chance to see if my teachings work in a “live fire” exercise. Does it always work? Not always, sometimes I think I think too much. I could do better at being in the scene without processing so much.

I don’t know.. what do you think?