The Del Close Improv Marathon
This past weekend I was in New York City for the 11th Annual Del Close Improv Marathon at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre. It was 72 hours round the clock of “long form” improv presented at five different venues all in a three-block radius by improvisers from around the U.S., Canada and Finland. There was improvised Shakespeare, improvised musicals, Spanish language improv, improv where all the actors were blindfolded, and lots of improv based on stories solicited from the audience.
There was much good stuff and a lot not so good – improv full of conflict, denial and just not listening. In a theater form that celebrates the legacy of Del Close, there were numerous choices made throughout the festival that would have had Del literally storming the stage to physically eject the perpetrators (or at least screaming obscenities so loud, they would have shriveled up and left the stage by themselves through sheer intimidation and embarrassment). I saw several office scene ended abruptly when the guys playing the boss screamed “You’re fuckin’ fired!” (the “fuckin’” was in there to assure a laugh). Each time, “You’re fuckin’ fired!” ended any attempt to explore potentially interesting scenes.
There’s an awful lot of screaming in long-form improv. Once again, not listening is the culprit. Not listening brings with it that horrible feeling that you’re not being heard. You “project,” to use a psychotherapeutic term, your lack of listening onto the other person. And you react — you raise your voice and scream in the hopes of being heard. And the screaming makes true listening even harder. It’s a vicious cycle. The opposite of that, and a very positive version in improv, which thankfully I also saw lots of at the marathon, is, the more trust you put in the other actor, the more trustworthy they become. That’s improv at its best. And the contrast over 72 hours of improv is quite instructional.
The best consistent work I saw during the three days was a two-man long form team – Scheer and McBrayer. Paul Scheer and Jack McBrayer (Jack plays the network page on “30 Rock”) did some of the best improvisational comedy acting I’ve seen in years. They were a case study in listening, calm playing, great character work, egoless support, true “behavioral comedy” without the need to pander to the audience in any way. And most memorably, they did a bit within the improv where the two of them played four soldiers on guard duty in a foxhole. It was funny, smart and contained some of the best and most effortless presentation of character transformation I’ve ever seen.
The logo for the Del Close Marathon was a bobble head toy of Del, created especially for the event. If I had a time machine, I would love to go back to the ‘70’s, when Del opined, “My reputation will never get out of the neighborhood” and tell him that in the future there would be a bobble head toy of him, just to see and hear his reaction.
I had a great time in NYC and watching all that improv. I highly recommend The Del Close Marathon. The 12th Annual will be here sooner than you think.