Twenty years ago, I had just started performing improv. Admittedly, it was pretty bad improv. Bar-prov. Improv in bars, is not the most artistically satisfying experience for a performer. Performing improv in bars is like doing a cooking-demo in a strip club. Nobody gets what you’re doing. Nobody cares what you’re doing. You’re just a distraction from the main event. (And they’d probably prefer it if you were naked). Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do some good, quality improv in bars, it’s just difficult. Some current Chicago improvisers might disagree with me on this point, and that’s fine. But I would mention to them that this was in Kentucky in the early to mid nineties. No one even knew what an improv group was.
We were sometimes booked for gigs only to disappoint the establishment when we showed up without guitars and a keyboard. When folks heard the words, “improv group” they thought they were either hiring a group of stand-ups or a jazz ensemble. Twenty minutes into our show at The Kentucky State Fair, we still had audience members shouting out requests for songs we should play. To this day, I sincerely believe that they weren’t heckling us. They were just drunk, confused, and honestly thought we were a group of musicians. Without instruments. A really shitty band. But why else would a group of people be on stage together in a beer tent at the fair? The concept of improvised theatre was so far out of the realm of possibility for your average person back then.
Our steady gig was closing out amateur night at the local comedy club. I guess you could say we were the headliners of amateurs. Sort of a back-handed honorific. The highest of the lows.
Let’s give a hand to all of the comics you’ve seen tonight! We’re gonna do a little something different for ya. We’re the ReActors, and we’re going to take suggestions from YOU, the audience, for our entire show! We’re gonna start tonight off by telling you a joke. And the joke goes something like this: 185 blanks walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve blanks.” And the 185 blanks said, something funny. You give us the blank and we’ll give you the something funny.
Now since we were performing in bars, typically we’d get the word, “dildo.” I was seventeen. I didn’t know what a dildo was. I understood the concept. But the first time I’d ever heard that word was on stage during an improv show. It only took hearing a few punchlines to figure out what everyone was talking about. By then, I could come up with something myself.
185 dildos said, “That’s okay, we’ll go to the bar that’s a little to the left, no right, no left, yeah, right there.”
I learned a lot as a young improviser. I learned about prostitution, gynecology, proctology, and sex. I got kissed a lot in my late teens and early twenties (minus a few exceptions, they were mostly stage-kisses). I referenced movies before I saw them, acted out sports I’d never played, and basically, portrayed experiences I’d never experienced.
No wonder my improv wasn’t that great. Sure, part of the reason is that I was green at improv. (Part of the reason is that I was performing most of my shows in bars.) But part of the reason is that I was green at life.
Now, improv and I have been together a good, long while. But I still learn a lot as an older improviser. I learn about relationships, people, and myself. More and more, I portray experiences I’ve actually experienced.
Twenty years ago, I had just started performing improv. It has made up such a huge part of my life. They say, “Good things come to those who wait.” But with improv—or any theatre—or any art-form, for that matter—good things come to those who do. Those who do poorly at first, but continue to do…through the dildo jokes, the beer tents, and the 185 whatevers…..until they are able to get to the relationships, the people, and themselves.
Twenty years ago, I gave improv myself and improv gave me the something funny, the something expressive, the something connected, and all the countless somethings about myself.