The Pyrotechnics of Improv
Del Close is recognized as a major force in the history of improvisational theater. Almost all members of the improv community acknowledge his genius. The list of comedy icons trained and inspired by him reads like a “who’s who” of American comedy popular culture. But the fact is, it remains hard to explain the elements of his genius – how Del did what he did and what he was striving for in his passionate drive to advance “the work.” Del is almost always remembered through funny anecdotes – generically referred to as “Del stories.” So, in an attempt to add something to the conversation about Del’s impact on the art of improvisational theater, I’d like to start with a few Del stories, as related to me by the man himself.
Del was a teen-age runaway when he landed his first job in show business, as part of Lash LaRue’s carnival act. Lash Larue was a cowboy movie star whose weapon of choice was not blazing six guns but a bullwhip. In his act, a kid would hold a cigarette or some other small object in his mouth, and Lash would whip it out, nearly taking off the kid’s nose every time. Del was the kid. But Del soon grew tired of being someone else’s whipping boy (bad pun intended). So he developed his own act. Billed as Asrad the Incombustible Persian, Del toured the carnival circuit swallowing swords and eating fire. (Years later, on our way to a gig, he was exhibiting his fire eating skills and set my car’s interior on fire – but that’s another Del story for another blog).
Following his carny stint, Del matriculated to New York’s cabaret theater scene with Julius Monk’s Review at Upstairs at the Downstairs. There he learned and perfected the “down front fast and funny” style of comedy, all about making the audience laugh. But Del was way too smart and way too restless to stay just “down front fast and funny.”He was looking for something more. And as he turned to directing, he was more interested in a kind of funny based on real people behaving honestly.
As my director at The Committee, Del loved the fact that I worked so “behaviorally” on stage, getting laughs without trying to be funny. Whenever I’d cross the line and “go for the joke”, Del would “direct” me back by using his cabaret performing skills. The lessons I learned were through his entertaining parody of what I was doing. His “direction” was to feign my over-the-top presentational style, amping himself up to performance mode with a purposefully annoying “AND NOW…!” This was our code. It was Del’s unique style of directing. It imprinted upon me important lessons and brought me right back to the reality level that was essential to the kind of comedy we were creating together.
Del taught by performing, and would often punctuate the deepest conversations on profound topics by calling up tricks from his earlier days. One of his favorite tricks was to “swallow” a lit cigarette only to make it appear again in a big puff of smoke, then continue smoking it. Or, one of his rambling but brilliant workshop “lectures” might be capped by Del breaking into a little tap dance ending with him jumping high into the air, seemingly suspended in space, where he’d click his heels together, then land back on his feet and with even greater theatrics, throw his arms out and yell “ACHA!!”
As a teacher, Del was a master at mixing the comical silliness of The Three Stooges with explanations from theoretical physics or esoteric anthropological discoveries. He reveled in an exploration of the dynamic tension between traditional cabaret theater, with elements of vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret comedy, and a much deeper, often darker, hyper-intelligent, cosmic perspective about the work and how to do it.
As a mentor, Del introduced me to his abstract, philosophical, iconoclast bordering on “mad scientist” point of view. He also gave me a lot of books to read that weren’t about being funny, but nonetheless, had everything to do with the work on stage. They’re not too many laughs, to say the least, in books like Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft.
Every now and then, I revisit one of those books. I am just now re-reading Olaf Stapleton’s Star Maker decades after Del first introduced me to it. Star Maker is a far-reaching journey into the infinite reaches of the cosmos. It is the history, over eons and eons, of humanity’s need to find community and connection, the illusiveness of true communication and cooperation, and the power of group mind.
Reading Star Maker after all these years, made me appreciate again the fact that helping people do funny shit on stage was only Del’s “day job.” His passion was in the alchemy of making sparks fly and making creative explosions happen out of a brew of silly ass traditional American comedy mixed with profound explorations of vast ideas that forced actors to truly play, as Del put it “at the top of your intelligence.”
Once, doing one of our epic “Harolds” (15 or 20 people on stage improvising for a couple hours), a full company musical production number ended with everyone falling exhausted onto the floor. After a few seconds, I stood up and started walking through the fallen crowd somberly calling out “Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” Del got the reference – let’s call it “Black Plague humor” – and it may have been the loudest laugh I ever got from Del.
With the Harold and long-form improv, Del was reaching for a theater form that could spontaneously explore a theme using a mix of genres, styles and tones. This theater form brought to the stage and to the exploration of a theme or a question, the kaleidoscopic vision that mirrored what was inside Del’s head: comedy, history, all genres, science, slap stick, etc, etc. Del conjured a performance environment where the actors, when they were in sync, thought together like Del thought. Through a series of creative explosions by individual actors with innumerable perspectives, the work on stage evolved into “the group mind.”
Dizzy Gillespie was once asked to define the contribution of Charlie Parker to the history of jazz. His response was that before Charlie Parker there were a lot of great players for many years, playing very fine jazz, but – “Bird added the pyrotechnics.”
It is very, very important that as improvisers we never undervalue the contributions of the great founding fathers and mothers of American improvisational theater. There could have been no Del Close without his teachers and mentors, Viola Spolin and Paul Sills. But with his work and his guidance, particularly in the development of long form improv, Del is responsible for giving us “the pyrotechnics of improv.”