Saturday, November 22, 2014

Essay: Deceptively Schlubby Improv

by Pam Victor

The word "schlubby" is stuck in my craw. Recently, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley reviewed the ground-breaking improvised Off-Broadway show Blank! The Musical. It was a rave review. However the words that linger bitterly for me is the part when he says, "My initial hopes were not high. The deceptively schlubby-looking cast seemed as if it, too, could have been chosen at random from the audience."

Schlubby-looking? I have had the great pleasure of meeting only one member of the performing cast, Katie Dufresne, and she's so naturally sexy that I achieved instant lady wood when we made eye contact. Looking at photos of the rest of the cast, I don't see any that I would kick out of bed. Schlubby-looking? Do I have a schlubby-lovin' kink that's just now been discovered or is Ben Brantley seeing something that I'm missing? If "schlubby-looking" means astoundingly talented improvisers, actors, singers, and humans, then I'm definitely going to start prowling the schlubby-looking porn sites from now on.
Back row: Matthew Van Colton, Douglas Widick,
Andrew Knox.
Front row: Nicole C. Hastings,

Katie Dufrense, Tessa Hersh.
Photo by Jenny Anderson
for Broadway

I'm reminded of a class I took with a Broadway actress who was exploring improvisation as a way to expand her acting skills. After a while of working together, one day she said, "You know, the thing I love about improv that is so different than Broadway is that everyone looks so .... so ..." I cringed as she searched for a word that wasn't insulting. I don't remember the exact working she latched upon, but it definitely was insulting. Something along the lines of "schlubby." Not attractive.

Yes, we are an average-looking bunch. Because that's part of the job! A vastly vast majority of the improvisers I know are incredibly intelligent. And because life is a yin-yang motherfucker, incredibly intelligent people don't often also get to be conventionally, incredibly attractive too. And thank goodness because we couldn't do our job if we were overly blessed with the pretty stick. 

Tonight, I may be called upon to convincingly play a toddler, a football coach, and a three-toed sloth. All in the same show. When I get dressed for a show, I look in the mirror to see if I pass what I call The Hobo Test. I know I could always play a person who looks like me, but could I also play a hobo in this outfit? I'll assume a hobo position and see how things hang on me. If I don't buy it, I change my clothes. An improviser's job is to represent real life onstage, and we can't do that if we look like a super model 'cause that ain't real life. (Unless you're a super model. But even then, you ain't livin' a real life, sister, and you know it.) I'd challenge Angelina Jolie to a sloth-off any day of the week. I'll give her a three-toed head start. And even so, she'll eat my dust. 

But are improvisers schlubby? I don't think so. We look like human beings. Because our job is to be human beings. I think Ben Brantley has been hanging around with movie stars and sparkly Broadway babes too long. He has forgotten the beauty of a God-given nose, the soft lines of eyes who have seen the world, the arched brows of a person who knows what it feels like to be on the bottom rung and doesn't intend to feel it again.

The improvisation world is exploding right now. Schlubby bullshit aside, Ben Brantley also wrote in his review of Blank! The Musical, "Suffice it to say that duets, quartets and even sextets — in which conflicting desires resolved themselves into harmony — sprang into credible, ludicrous and utterly familiar existence. The eventual product brought to mind 'If/Then,' the current Idina Menzel vehicle, and Jason Robert Brown’s '13' filtered through sources as different as 'Gypsy' and 'High School Musical.'"

Meanwhile on the west coast, American Theatre's critic Jason Rohrer recently reviewed a show at L.A.'s Impro Theatre, a job he approached with dread. He writes of his argument with his editor upon getting the assignment, “'Improv?' I protested. 'College students in silly hats? Don’t you have a real show for me?'"

Then he saw the show.

Afterwhich he wrote, "Longform improvisation, properly executed, is a feat expanding the definition of human potential. Dilettantes need not apply. Besides character-oriented performance elements like emotional and physical dexterity, a performer must master the theories of intention; the use of space; the function of theme; the purposes of exposition, plot and story. It takes decades to become proficient in this art, which exemplifies the ephemeral, before-your-very-eyes nature of the theatrical experience itself."

Yes, after decades of incubation (and doing the hard, hard work), the world of improvisation is expanding exponentially. In our mecca of Chicago, iO Theater and Annoyance Theater recently both opened bigger and better theaters. UCB-LA did the same. TJ and Dave and my friends in Boston's Big Bang improv just returned from their own, individual highly successful, whirlwind tours of Europe. Even in my tiny corner of Western Massachusetts, we've seen tremendous growth in just the last year alone. Things are achangin'. And I suspect that in the not too distant future  as slick producers figure out how to put financially advantageous improv shows onstage and screen, we will lose control of the improv train. It's going to get away from us, my friends. And I pray to the Great Goddess of Improvisation that no matter how far afield this artform travels, may improvisers always remain wonderfully schlubby.
Would you like to dive into some more pieces about improvisation?

Check out Geeking Out with... interviews with deliciously deceptively schlubby talents like:

and many more!

Or if you're feeling all tingly and mystical, 
set your brain aside and read:
The Zen of Improv.

* * *

Pam Victor is the founding member of The Ha-Ha’s, and she produces The Happier Valley Comedy Show in western Massachusetts. Pam performs  "Geeking Out with: The TALK SHOW," a live version of the written Geeking Out with... interview series, at comedy festivals throughout the land. Pam writes mostly humorous, mostly true essays and reviews of books, movies, and tea on her blog, "My Nephew is a Poodle." Currently, Pam is finishing up work on "Improvisation at the Speed of Life: The TJ and Dave Book" with co-authors TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Read all her nonsense at

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