As a performer and public speaker, it has been a long time since a performance situation or venue truly intimidated me. Several thousand people watching me dance in a theme park parade? No. (Even while wearing dreadful bowling costumes.) Six hundred women at a Microsoft technical conference? No. (Besides, we had microphones.) A 1500 person ballroom at a comic convention with a major celebrity? Not really. (I might have been a wee bit distracted by the knee surgery or the painkillers, but still not intimidated. Long story.) That’s one of the gifts improv gives you – all the world’s a stage when you can do a show on a moment’s notice, so why fear any of them?
But the Intiman Playhouse intimidated me. This weekend marked the first weekend of Seattle TheatreSports’ 8-month residency in the Intiman Playhouse during the renovation of our home, the Market Theatre – and this past Saturday marked my first time performing on that stage.
For comparison: the Market is at least 30 years old but probably older; with a capacity of 222 and a very “intimate” tech plot (read: not many options for light/projection, no curtain, etc. etc.).
The Intiman, on the other hand, is a LORT Equity house that seats 444 people, has a full fly/catwalk system, scene shop, costume shop, office floor, dressing rooms, etc etc etc. It hosted the world premiere of the Broadway musical “Light in the Piazza.” It’s waaaaaay more than we need. On the drive over, we joked about mounting “TheatreSports: Turn Off The Dark”; after all, the theatre IS capable of supporting an actor suspension system. 😉
Yet apparently TheatreSports used to perform at the Intiman, in our “golden age” when we were pretty much the only improv option in town. They sold out the 444 seat house routinely. In fact, that is how the Gum Wall – the world’s second germiest attraction according to the AP – was born. When we moved into the smaller Market (so we could take full occupancy instead of share a space), it resulted in standing room only shows and standby lines. Someone in a standby line put their gum on the brick… then another, and another, and now it’s a weird musty-mint-smelling must-not-touch world attraction. A small part of me feared that I’d be unable to perform TheatreSports without that scent assaulting me beforehand.
But that’s not the point. For me, I certainly never envisioned performing on that stage when seeing shows there – Intiman Theatre Company was fully resident, a regional Equity theatre that even won a Tony. So to look out upon that comparatively massive room and realize you must fill it with your presence, sans microphone, is intimidating. On Friday I only had to judge – still meant sitting onstage in full audience view the whole time, but no pressure to be creative. But Saturday I got the chance to perform, and though we’re still working out the kinks I’m glad of it.
For me, it felt particularly ironic. You see, one of (if not the very) first improv games I ever learned was called “Spotlight”. One person sings a song, and other people tag in to sing new songs inspired by a word in the previous song. I loved my cast in that situation (my first scripted show at Carnegie Mellon) but I HATED the game. Everyone else had these insanely good memories for lyrics, but I can only remember melodies. I played along, but that game represented everything that intimidated me about improv – veterans taking most of the stage time, singing a capella, being essentially alone onstage… bleh. And we never intended to perform that in front of people. I didn’t intend to pursue improv at first, either; it was scary and only a means to an end of warming up and inspiring creativity during the rehearsal process.
Fast forward 13 years, and I’m pulled center stage during the tossup challenge of a live professional TheatreSports show in front of many paying guests in this massive, gorgeous 444 seat theatre. The game our MC chose? “Lounge Lizards”, which is essentially a competitive version of Spotlight. There’s no time to argue nor is there any room for it, so you just do the best you can in the moment. But it was funny to realize how far I’d come just to perform Spotlight again after avoiding it as much as possible during those rehearsals.
There are many challenges we need to adapt to in the new space. We’re ¾ in the round here, so directional sound is an issue when facing SR or SL. The space wants to eat our voices. We have to use union talent for the theatre tech, so we can’t have trained improvisors on lights and sound. The lighting situation is better, but completely different. The stage is immensely deep. It’s just a lot of adapting, and a lot more to keep in mind – which of course pulls us all “out of the moment.” We’re all figuring it out, but the audience is still really enjoying themselves.
And given our rather informal system back at the Market, I am still not used to the very official stage manager announcements over the loudspeakers. “Actors, this is your fiiiive minute call. Five minutes to places, actors, 5 minutes.” All I can think of is how I’d love a Noises Off re-enactment over that loudspeaker.
Of course, scary as it is, it’s also an awesome opportunity and a great learning experience. And though we miss our bar (there is one at Intiman but it’s more expensive), that blow is softened by our former bar’s kegerator – a free flowing open tap of Pyramid beer. And somehow, the fridge has wine and sparkling wine in it for larger celebration. Plus about 30 puzzles if we need to kill time (I haven’t the faintest idea why there are so many puzzles, especially the Care Bears one).
Oh, and air conditioning and heating. Blessed AC.
The greenroom now supplants our old bar as the decompression spot of least resistance post-show. Saturday night, rather than go out drinking, we opted for casual conversation and free beer. The last remaining group was fascinating because it spanned our company’s history – from our artistic director Randy who has been with the troupe for decades and several other veterans, to three comparative newbies in myself and two other actors.
I just can’t help but look back on the journey when hitting such an unfamiliar milestone. I am grateful for all of the opportunities improv has given me over the years to grow as a person and to experience new things, whether that be playing Glinda in full costume on an away gig or performing in a massive regional theatre. And for all the people it’s helped me reach – even after Saturday’s show, an audience member approached me to compliment the show and then recognized me from my NERDprov performance at the Emerald City ComicCon. Good memory, that.
I’ve got a forced weeklong hiatus since I’m going on vacation next weekend, but that makes me all the more curious to see how things have evolved when I return to that stage in 2 weeks. We shall tackle this challenge head-on. I shall tackle it head-on. I will improve my theatricality, my staging, and my projection to bring our work up to the level the new space demands.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t giggle every time the loudspeaker goes off. And I STILL hate “Spotlight” as an improv game. Some things never change.
(And on the subject of improv, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is coming back this November! Venue and dates to be announced.)