Two People Talking
On March 3, 1999 I got a phone call from Charna Halpern, co-founder with improvisational theater visionary Del Close, of iO Improv. She told me that Del, our dear friend, was on his deathbed and that I “should come to Chicago right away.”
Though I had no real life experience to compare it to, Del’s “death scene” seemed to echo his life-long direction to “go for the unlikely choice”, and as a result was a quintessentially Del production. Incoming farewell phone calls that were being politely deflected in somber hushed tones were interrupted with Del yelling directions: “TELL ‘EM I’M DYING!” Dozens of friends and hundreds of students streamed through to bid farewell. A pre-birthday party/wake brought tears and laughter (filmed by Comedy Central, of course!). There was not much private time.
But in the time we did have alone together in his last hours, Del and I talked about a few things – mostly about the work we did together. He told me how much he loved one scene in particular that we worked on at “The Committee” under his direction for nine months – called “Babble.” Del called it a “high point” of his career. It was a two-person scene where I played a young guy who had a blind date with a young woman who hardly ever left the house (played brilliantly and alternately by Ruth Silveira and Julie Payne). The woman, an ultimate loner, verbalized everything — not only the small talk with her “date”, but also all her inner-thoughts, anxieties, self-criticism and self-self criticism! The more stressed the woman became the more she talked. The poor guy struggled to deal with an attractive date who was verbalizing on five levels of consciousness! Nothing, but NOTHING, was left hidden or unsaid.
Del loved “Babble” because it was all about how people succeed or fail to communicate. We played the scene for audiences hundreds of times, and never knew, from night to night, how it would end until the very last minute. Would the guy stay for the relationship or leave and end it? (If I left, the audience would collectively groan, if I stayed, there was a collective sigh of relief, and laughter.) The scene dealt with a most fundamental question: “When people talk to each other,” Del asked, “what are they really saying?” And in the scene, the biggest laughs came, just as Del always insisted, as a by-product of the humanity and connectivity displayed on stage.
Del was a complicated man and many things to many people — to most he was a comic genius, “The Funniest One in the Room” (the title of his biography), the shamanic hero of hundreds of antic “Del stories.” But in our last conversation, Del described himself simply as a “humanist” — more interested in how people communicate than in anything else.
In that tradition, what we do at Laughter for a Change is primarily an active and playful exploration of how and why people communicate and what they discover in the process. There is always laughter. Laughter that in its own profound and silly way, brings us together, changes us, makes us better.