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Neutrons Protons: Sad about improv

Editor's Note: NolaVie presents this guest blog series from Neutrons Protons, a New Orleans-based literary publication that believes well-written stories -- and a good dose of humor -- have the power to change the world. The next issue comes out August 1. Here, editor Nick Thomas reflects upon completing the five levels of The New Movement Theater improv program, as both he and TNM find a new home in comedy.

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The New Movement Theater New Orleans is on the move. This past Wednesday marked its final show inside the space it has called home for over two years. It was in the spring of 2012 that the 1919 Burgundy Street location officially opened its doors as a comedy theater. In the time since, the theater has grown to such an extent that TNM was forced to start renting out various other spaces in the neighborhood in order to facilitate all of its classes. There are currently more than sixty potential students on the waiting list for Level 1 Improv. This uptick in popularity has resulted in an extensive and interconnected student body that often feels more like a community.

I completed the fifth and final level of the improv curriculum about three months ago. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I do consider myself to be a funny person. I know how to make people laugh. It’s my most frequently employed tool in everyday conversation. So I found it somewhat confounding when I struggled mightily at improv comedy. I had been told, on more than one occasion by practitioners and connoisseurs of the craft, that I would be a natural at it, should I ever deign to give it a try. This turned out to not be the case.

I have not always been a fan of watching improv. I found it to be too silly, too zany, too puerile. However, the improv at The

Machine A

Machine A

New Movement Theater is of another sort entirely. By placing an emphasis on the emotionality and character development within a scene, the performers are more likely to find a humor driven by the audience’s investment in the narrative of the scene, rather than by the physical comedy and slapstick moments. The latter become icing on the cake, rather than the meat on the bone.

The troupe Machine A is an extreme example of this. Its two members (Chris Kaminstein & Cecile Monteyne) will use a twenty-minute set to engage in long-form storytelling, wherein they bounce from character to character and from one timeline to another, but always with the final goal of finding a consistent narrative. Watching them perform, you feel almost as though you’re watching a play. This isn’t to say that the comedy is never silly or goofy, but when it is, it’s earned.

The first game I participated  as an improv student was during a group exercise in which the class cooperated in building a setting for a scene. One by one, in no particular order, students added individual imaginary elements to the stage. A road sign here, a bike rack there. A pigeon perched atop the sign. A bus stop. A man sitting atop the bench at the bus stop. Next, one of the students walked on stage and pantomimed the act of placing a t-shirt on the aforementioned man’s torso. He informed us that the front of the shirt read: ‘I like young boys.’ I cringed, as I could see where this was heading. And it’s not that I can’t appreciate blue humor but, rather, I prefer comedy that is not so heavily forecast. Then, to my surprise, our teacher (Tami Nelson, cofounder of TNM) took this opportunity to step in and temporarily halt the exercise. She suggested to the class that this was not the ideal choice. Instead, she urged us as students of comedy to consider subtler choices. This came as music to my comedic ears.

While we’re on the subject of young boys, I should confess that I have not always been funny. As a kid of about ten, I was shy; introverted; and, more than anything, scared. I was afraid of everything back then, but most of all, I was afraid of people. Afraid of girls, afraid of bullies, afraid even of my friends, as I had chosen friends who happened to be bullies. I had a self-esteem problem and I cried regularly, often at recess while being bullied by my bully friends.

I don’t deal easily with performing tasks that I am not skilled at. And as I toiled my way through all five levels of improv training at TNM, I grew more and more frustrated as I continued to struggle and saw few signs of improvement. If anything, the extent to which I watched the students around me thrive and grow as improvisers only emphasized my stasis. I could and should have worked harder, if it meant anything to me. I should have spent more time outside of class practicing. I should have gone to more student jams. I am not excusing myself. The fact is, psychologically, I had a tough time getting over the fact that humor, something that had felt relatively easy for me for quite awhile in life, was suddenly presenting itself as a huge challenge.

There were moments when I did enjoy improv. These were the moments in which scenes suddenly made sense. The world formed in front of my eyes; my character and those around me seemed to crystallize and the game became apparent. In these moments, playing was suddenly easy and joyful. I remember a scene featuring my friend Robert Sheesley and me. We played friends on a fishing trip. And he was sad. About everything. That was it. That sounds simple and stupid, but as time went on, and my every attempt to cheer him up backfired and he became more and more dejected, everything about our motives and actions became logical to us, and funnier and funnier for those watching. Robert and I talk about this scene on occasion to this day. We call it, simply enough, Sad About Fishing. Chris Trew, cofounder of TNM, once told me that one of the best indications of a good improv scene is if said scene lends itself very obviously to a title. Sad About Fishing was one such scene.

Performance is, at its core, a lie. But it is most successful when delivered with intense and heartfelt earnestness. This is true of improv as well. The conviction of a great improv performance can invest any scene with emotional resonance. Something that all of the best performers at The New Movement Theater have in common is a confidence in the choices they make on stage. The self-assurance that the members of a group like Super Computer (Mike Spara, Derek Dupuy, James Hamilton & Mike Yoder) convey as they move about the stage and build a world together is uncanny.

Super Computer

Super Computer

And that’s the root of it, if you ask me. Ironic though it may seem, honesty is the secret ingredient that can make the silliest and zaniest of comedy emotionally engaging for an audience. Contrary to what might seem rational, improv comedy requires honesty of its performers more than most other types of performance. Because when you’re making the choice to be an alien from the distant future that wears cars as clothing and tries to steal frozen pizza bagels from Earthlings, you better bring the f*cking sincerity to that role if you want the audience to care.

In September, The New Movement will move into its new home at 2706 St Claude Ave. In the meantime, during the month of August, it will be utilizing The Shadowbox Theater as its temporary residence. You should go see some shows. I will certainly be there, laughing at the great comedy and marveling at people proving so adept at something that, to me, is one of the hardest things there is in life: earnest comedy.