Thursday, September 15, 2011
A Promising Start
Tuesday, September 13th, 2011. Henceforth referred to as The Night I Cried With The Homeless. I was crying because I could not find my improv class, and if that is not the most pathetic sentence ever written then I don't want to know what is.
I wasn't supposed to be taking improv 200 on a Tuesday night. I was supposed to be taking a Sketch Comedy Writing course on Saturday afternoons. I found the class through Unexpected Productions (UP) and happily forked over 200 dollars to get my name on the roster, figuring it'd be a quick jump from there to a boardroom at 30 Rockefeller Place where Lorne Michaels would be sliding a contract towards me across a big wooden table.
Signing away Saturday afternoons for the next eight weeks would mean sacrificing half a season of weekend climbing trips. My friends would be out in the mountains in the beautiful fall weather bonding and getting really fit, while I'd be stuck in the basement of some 2nd rate theater writing political sketches about alien piglets. I was happy with this idea because I wanted to sacrifice for my career. I wanted to give it my all.
Since Saturdays were shot, I decided to schedule my "day job" for the remaining hours of the weekends. (If you want to be a successful artist you have to refer to all other work as your "day job" even if it's mostly at night, like mine). Last Saturday I went into work with a fresh notebook and a special fountain pen I'd bought as a you-go-girl gift for myself. At the end of the shift, I went into the changing room to preen. I put on the "artsy" outfit I'd chosen that morning: dark skinny jeans from the Gap with foot stirrups and a sweater. Then I headed across town all a twitter, only to have a guy named Derick call me to say the class had been cancelled. "Low turnout."
I slumped over the steering wheel. I had already sunk 200 bones and two months' worth of weekends into this class.
Then I had a great idea. I asked to be put in Improv 200 instead. From my thorough background searches on all the SNL writers and performers, I've learned that most of them come from "a background in improv." I had missed one class already, but there were still seven left and then a live performance in a real theater. The only problem was that the class was held on Tuesday nights, and I was scheduled to work on Tuesday nights.
That afternoon, fiercely determined and high on Dayquil, liquid courage and cough relief, I began a "Shock and Awe" email campaign on my co-workers. I typed out a small essay about the recent events and my feelings regarding them. I wrote poignantly about the debilitating disappointment I felt about the writing class cancellation, and how earlier that day my parents learned that the puppy they were scheduled to pick up had kennel cough and had to be kept in isolation for three weeks. Combined, it was just too much, and the only thing that would make life bearable again was this improv class.
Not surprisingly, nobody was biting at the heals to take my four-to-midnight shifts. I upped the ante. I offered to cover the undesirables: wall scrubbing shifts, birthday parties, 6am openings. I promised to bake something really special for whoever came to my aid. Days passed. I added another incentive: an inconveniently timed airport pick up, good for any time in the next year.
That did it. In Seattle, land of terrible mass transit, airport pickups trump banana bread any day. I had my schedule covered. This past Tuesday evening I triumphantly drove to Seattle Center to start my new life. I too would one day be an SNL writer with "a background in improv."
If you've never been to Seattle Center, it's one wacky place. Some forward-thinking city planner decided to crush the Space Needle, science museum, Experience Music Project, ballet halls, theaters, and concert venues onto one campus and scatter a handful of rides, fountains and a weird carnival themed food court into the mix. "Let's give the alternative crowd these seventy four acres," was the thinking behind it. "And the computer nerds can have the entire rest of the city." Then someone realized this wasn't fair, so they built a brand new city across the water and gave that to the computer nerds as well.
Here is Wikipedia's image of Seattle Center, and I promise you it's forged. At least on a Tuesday evening in mid September, it is not nearly so lit up and festive. Those mountains are real though.
Seattle Center is a fun place during the day, if fun to you means screaming gobs of elementary school field trips. But after nightfall it becomes weird. It's dark and vacant and the rides only go when someone feels like working them. There is no schedule for the rides. I learned this during one extremely sad evening when I was in college. After 6pm, the "Center House" with the food court is populated by homeless people and their shopping carts. I think it might be open 24/7. The whole place is a Sherman Alexi short story come to life.
The UP website said class would be held at the Puget Sound Theater (PST) classrooms on the 4th floor of the Center House, with fine print recommending I call and double check because classroom locations are subject to change. The guy on the phone told that indeed they had changed, and I should go to the Intamin Playhouse instead. From there someone would direct me where to go. "Really?" I asked. "There will be someone at the theater standing there telling intermediate improv students where to go?" He said yes and hung up very quickly.
There wasn't. I know! Who could have guessed! When I found the Intamin, every single door was locked. I was already late because I had a hard time finding the place to begin with. There are no less than seven theaters at Seattle Center, each in a different quadrant of the park. Finally I found a glass door through which I could see some sort of acting class going on. I pounded on the glass shamelessly. It was Improv 100; so close. The teacher was very nice and apologetic. He explained that the whole schedule had been "entirely fucked" by their director. He recommended I check the Black Box theater in the basement of the Center House.
I found nothing in the basement except a locked children's museum, incidentally the lamest children's museum in the nation. I used to go there when I was a nanny. There's an "African School Hut" with a chalkboard and a video of African people playing the drums inside of it, and in the corner there's usually some toddler chewing on an electric chord. That's about it.
Back upstairs, a flamboyantly gay man suggested the TSA classrooms on the fourth floor and pointed me towards an elevator. Feeling hopeful, I got in and saw that this particular elevator only went to floor three. Floor three was dark and silent. By now it was forty five minutes into the class. I don't know if you are familiar with theater people but I am. As a high schooler I was deeply involved in the Yoh Theater Players and, as you can see from this picture, a very cool and important person.
Here's how it works. After a sub-group is formed within the community, for example a performing troupe or the cast of a play, group members bond and immediately dislike and distrust all outsiders. This was already the second week of Improv, minutes were ticking away, I was completely lost and I had awful, red rodent eyes. The situation was grim.
At this point I did what anyone would do. I went back to the shut down food court, took a seat between two catatonic homeless men, and wept. Then I took the expensive, nearly full smoothie I was drinking, marched over to the trash can, and slammed it in. The homeless men blinked. And after that I felt somewhat better.
My adventure continued when I found a sneaky back stairwell that lead to the elusive fourth floor. There I found a redhead named Kevin who was scratching at the wall for a hidden panel that might lead to our class. It was like being in 28 Days Later and finding another uninfected human: the game had changed. We were now a team. Emboldened by this fortuitous turn, I whammed on a door behind which I could hear laughter. An irritated lady opened it and explained that yes, this was an improv class but it was advanced improv. Behind her I could hear someone dramatically reciting John Mayer's "Your body is Wonderland" and just for a second the thought "This is what I'm fighting for?" flashed through my head.
Annoyed Lady Teacher told us to look for a small theater on the first floor. Kevin knew the place a little better and after about fifteen minutes, we found it. It turned out that our class was held in a room directly behind the stage where a live performance of The Pirates of Penzance was being performed to an audience of children. Another thing about theater people: they don't like to be disturbed during Show Time. They're always running, always frantic, always looking for a missing prop and they do not! Have time! For you! Lucky for me I have terrifying eyes and I look either like the Anti-Christ or like a person who is severely Ill, depending on your political views. When I stare at a person and ask for something, they become very subdued and very compliant. Kevin and I were led to the door of our classroom.
When you reach the conclusion of a long, trying journey, everything is forgiven. You realize that the whole thing was just one great, big, Three's-Company-esqu mix up. After all, what worthwhile thing in life comes easily, without a wasted smoothie and a good cry and some screaming episodes inside a demented elevator? Feeling immediately more relaxed, it suddenly dawned on me that I had thrown away half a smoothie while in the company of hungry people. But I brightened up immediately when I entered the room and saw my fellow improv folk standing in a circle, passing around invisible objects. I bonded with them immediately, and I now dislike and distrust everybody else. It was my first, exciting step forward in a pathway forged by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Ol' demon eyes had arrived.