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The stage is small, no more than ten feet by fifteen. It’s not a stage, really: just an area marked off with masking tape as our performance space. It’s very important that we stay within that space. Improv may be made up on the spot, but it has very strict rules. Break them, and the whole thing descends into chaos.
Right now, the room is empty. I sit by the open window, enjoying a cigarette. Tonight, we will make this room come to life. Hearts will be won, lives will be lost, and most of all, people will laugh. I’ll be there throughout, not performing, but refereeing. Comedy is an art, but we treat it like a sport.
The magic of improv is that it can’t be written. I don’t just mean that writing it is antithetical to its dictionary definition; I mean that written improv sounds phony. And like all live theater, it is best experienced live. What I can tell you about the performance that followed is that it was singular. Like any improv show, it had its moments where the energy flagged, but that was countered by long stretches where the magic was completely unforced. What differentiated our troupe from some of the others in the area was that we were a bit more diverse. Improv is a medium that is dominated by men—comedy, really, has that problem. But Sinergy was roughly evenly split between men and women. We didn’t plan it that way; it just happened that when we held auditions, both genders turned up in equal numbers. The advantage of something like that is that it leaves us with almost no cases of a man scoring cheap laughs by pretending to be a member of the opposite sex. Somehow, it never gets the same response when a woman plays a man.
I’m going to tell you a story. When I was a kid, my buddies and I used to play games in our backyards. Pretty standard stuff—we’d pretend that we were our D&D or favorite video game characters and act out battles and stuff. Only thing was that we were too competitive to allow any of us to be better at combat than the others, so fights always ended in a draw with each of us holding the others at sword/gunpoint or whatever. Like a Tarantino movie, except that instead of shooting each other, we’d all become friends and team up to fight the bad guy. The point is that real fights don’t usually happen like that. Most of the time, somebody wins. But improv is kind of like that. There can be “winners”, at least in some games, but the spirit of competition is friendly. None of us was afraid to let anyone else have the spotlight.
The crowd that night was really enjoying it. I saw a few friends and a few regular patrons, but the one that really jumped out at me was a young man in his late teens or early twenties who kept glancing at me. He looked oddly familiar, not like somebody I knew but like somebody I once had known. Then it hit me: he looked like me at that age. As he turned his head, I could even see a birthmark on his neck that was shaped exactly like mine. How could that be?
“Objection, your honor, there are no beavers in this presentation,” said Judy. Everyone, including the other team, burst out laughing. I rung the bell. Her side had won. Nothing could top that.
The next game was called Countdown Replay. The room got darker as I explained the rules, although I’m pretty sure I was the only one who noticed. My doppelgänger was looking right at me now. No doubt about it: He was playing with my head. Not that this was the first time somebody had done something like this to me.
The rules of the game were simple: The team performed a scene in two minutes, then again in one, then thirty seconds, and on until they only had time to run onstage and do whatever happened at the end (usually, somebody died). It was a real crowd pleaser, and one that was almost impossible to fuck up. Before it began, I made eye contact with my young double. Not this time, I thought. I’m going to win this round.
Why do some memories stick in our minds, while others just fade away? As the red team got into place, I thought back on the treehouse fort that we used to play in in my friend Devin’s backyard. We would play all sorts of games up there, but the one I remember was called Red vs. Blue. It was kinda stupid, really—we just decided who was one of the “red” people and who was one of the “blue” people and acted out mock invasions with his toy weapons, like the treehouse was the blue country that the red country was always trying to invade. Unlike the other game, you could win this one, and usually, it was the reds. (The treehouse had a blue roof, which is why it was always his/the blue people’s home. Devin insisted on playing blue every time, which was strange, since I couldn’t imagine why he enjoyed losing so much.)
Anyway, my double seemed to be cheering on the red team. I just wanted to make it a fair fight. “Can I have a suggestion for a place you would not want to lose a contact lens?” I asked the audience, and knew immediately that the answer would be the Titanic. It wasn’t my double’s idea—he just smiled as a redheaded woman resembling Merrida from Brave called it out. I turned back to the red team (blue would be up next), and the game began.
Unfortunately, Devin’s family moved away when I was eight. Maybe that was for the better. He was cool, but kind of weird. I still wonder what’s going on with him sometimes. The game was going pretty well, by the way. Rachel and Don always played off of each other beautifully, and Javi was always great at playing quirky side characters. I couldn’t really make sense of it all. Oh, I could follow the game easily enough, but my mind felt like it was running on three tracks at once. Like a hydra—somehow connected, but with multiple prongs all demanding my attention. Somehow, I was able to pay attention to three things simultaneously: the scene, which contained some of the best work I’d seen from any of the three performers, to my double, who laughed as he watched the scene, but kept sneaking momentary glances at me, to my own memories, which were suddenly rushing through my mind like a TV flipping through channels. What was I looking for? Something that had grazed my mind earlier, but that I had pushed back without even thinking about it. Like a song I heard earlier and enjoyed, but couldn’t remember the words or music to. Sifting through the leaves and vines that had grown over the cellar door in the years since I’d been down there, sooner or later I’d find a door handle and pull, then descend the steps into the blackness where all would be revealed. Sometimes, I’d wake up wondering if I’d gone to sleep at all. The dreams were so frantic and intense that I thought I’d watched movies in my head all night—action, romance, comedy, sci-fi, but all moving so quickly that my arms felt like twigs that would snap off if I tried to reach into the swirling mass of heavy solid things that were all around me. I’d wake up and the blanket felt too heavy, like it was made out of stone, get up and walk around until the world righted itself and I felt like I could function in it yet again. I had so many ideas, but they were borderline incomprehensible, even to me. How to spell out what was in my head in a way that somebody else would understand, to scrape out the wax and moss that had caked up along the inside of my skull and allow me to shut my eyes and not feel as if a demon was pounding away inside my head, trying to break through my cranium and crawl out into reality so that it might seek out others like it. I wanted to make movies, play music, and write poetry, but first I had to know where to begin, so I picked up a pen and scrawled out what I had sang to Devin at a campfire so many years ago, words that had not been written before I said them but which came so naturally that I swore I must have heard them somewhere else, preexisting and etched on my heart and waiting for me to say them:
Tell me how I got here,
The roads all look the same.
Is this the way I’m going
Or is it the way I came?
Thinking back on that cleared my head somewhat. By pushing myself as far as I could go in one direction, I found the strength to go in the other. The scene ended with Javi dying a dramatic death, which was effective, as it meant that even though they were about the repeat the scene multiple times with a running time that would grow shorter and shorter, they would always know exactly how to end it. It was important that everyone understood the ground rules, as the next game on the agenda was the hardest one of all.
Comedy is tricky. There are few experiences more cathartic than a genuine belly laugh, and nothing more painful to watch than somebody straining for a laugh. Ever since I started in improv, my instructors told me one thing over and over: Don’t try to be funny. Good improv was rapturous to behold. Bad improv would make you want to drive a railroad spike through your brain. Long-form improv was that times a thousand. Imagine making up a one-act play on the spot. Both teams were about to try that, and which one the audience preferred would determine that night’s winner. I could feel the energy in the crowd as they roared with approval. It fed into me, nurtured me, enlivened me, but there was one black hole in the room. And I would penetrate it if it was the last thing I ever did.
It was very difficult for me to sleep some nights. There was something that dogged me, something that wasn’t right in my head and wouldn’t let me go until I’d figured out what it was. It didn’t matter how tired I was or how much I had to do tomorrow. And in some form or another, that feeling had always been. That was going to change, however. My subconscious had taken physical form. I was going to break through into the other side. There were some sacrifices that I was prepared to make. But ultimately, I would win, or at the very least make sure that my double didn’t get what he wanted.
I never understood why we spend so much of our adult lives trying to correct the mistakes we made as children. Somebody has an abusive father and grows up to write stories about abusive parents and whatnot. I guess you’re supposed to write what you know. But I liked improv because it was more spontaneous and unpredictable than anything in real life. So for the time being, I resolved to forget about my younger self and concentrate on the show.
The next (and final) game was called French Braid, which splits each team into smaller groups and assigns each group a random noun like shoe, igloo, proposal, or something like that. Each group would then come onstage one by one and start a scene that in some way revolved around that word. Then all of the characters in that scene would find a reason to exit, the next group would do their scene, and so on. Eventually, the members of the different groups would find ways to work each other into their own plots, and thus, the disparate strands would blend together, like a French braid. It was odd watching people discover the story as they were telling it, like seeing a movie with a play being acted out in front of it. I did not intervene after fielding scene suggestions from the audience; I sat back and absorbed the spontaneity. Someday, I hoped that my own life would flow like this.
It’s funny how some things can remind you of other things that are almost completely unrelated. You know, like when somebody uses a word—maybe not even an uncommon word—and you start singing a song that contains that word in your head. You start connecting everything to something else and sooner or later, you’ve got 20 songs floating around in your head and you just want to get home and listen to them on YouTube just so you can think about something else for a change. You find everything interests you in some fashion. Every person you meet seems like a potential BFF. How to find definition when everything pulls you in a different direction? People drift away, ideas that seemed good at the time never come to fruition, and eventually, you realize that you aren’t losing friends so much as cutting away the parts that aren’t you.
This performance was one of the best I’d seen in years. It was quirky, bizarre, whimsical, and somehow even a bit convincing as drama. The suggestions were dog, perfume, and jailbreak, so it was quite a sight to see all three of those seamlessly (or at least somewhat seamlessly) integrated into the same storyline. The audience was enjoying themselves, and that just inspired everyone to perform better.
I took a deep breath and was immediately transported back to summer camp, when the boys would lie in their bunks and talk about things that we were too shy to talk about during the day. Most of it was about our genitals—what we did with them, what they looked like, and most importantly, what they made us do. I always felt like the reason our counselors slept elsewhere was so that we could have these discussions. I never spoke up, however. Had the mysterious figure in the audience tonight come to draw out of me what I was too scared to say to the other boys? I shifted in my seat, crossing and uncrossing my legs. Some things are best left hidden.
The scene was starting to wrap up. I tried to hold onto those last few minutes, tried to submerge myself in the moment. For the time being, I was safe. No one could harm me where I was at the moment. I remembered those lonely summer days that I spent lying awake on the couch, trying as hard as I could to ignore the tingling in my feet. Somebody was trying to make me get up off that couch, leave my house and do things I didn’t want to do. It wasn’t until much later that it sunk in that I didn’t want to do those things after all. I was simply confused about what was really within me and what had somehow wormed its way in there and started to pass itself off as real desire. I didn’t have the time to worry about anyone’s needs except my own. They had to be met. Maybe then I could worry about being selfless. Even so, I had dreams that were so gruesome and horrible that I couldn’t quite believe that I didn’t want something…different.
Dane and Stacy kissed. Stephanie, as a monkey, began to a have a seizure. The whole audience was dying. Even my doppelgänger laughed. I clapped. Now the other team would do the same, I would choose the winner, and that would be that. Have you ever just wanted to escape? I wanted to disappear inside my memories, to roll over in my camp counselor’s bunk and wrap my arms around him, but I had no choice but to press on. “I love you, Whitney,” I heard my counselor whisper. I looked my double in the eye. The time for secrets was past. We were going to end this.
The audience faded away. I don’t mean that literally. What really happened was that the blue team, I chose as winner (based on the audience’s response), everybody shook hands, we all did an encore of What Are You Doing?, and everybody went home. I was standing in a crowd of people who were all chatting about how great the show was and just as the talk turned to any further plans that we might have for the evening, I noticed him walking away. He was wearing a blue hoodie—have I mentioned that already?—that looked like one I had lost in a school parking lot years before. I ran back to get it, but somebody else had snatched it up. Was getting it back worth abandoning my friends? Eh, I’d catch up with them later.
“Hey,” I said, running up behind him as he was about to leave the public library we used as our performance space. When I laid a hand on his shoulder, he turned, and I saw that his eyes were no longer green like mine but hazel. I wondered what had caused the change. He stood staring at me, the two of us sizing each other up in front of the magnetic security thingamajigs. “Who are you?” I asked.
When he spoke, his voice sounded like no voice I’d ever heard—not a voice at all, actually. Just a flat recording of the words that had always existed within him, but now that they were out of his body, would fade and leave the room not quite as it was before. He said:
I am the ancient window man,
And there ain’t nothin’ to me.
Your breath will leave a fog on me,
But you can see right through me.
When he was done speaking, he held his mouth open and began to dissolve into me. It started at the top of his head and the tips of his fingers, then moved upwards and downwards from there. His entire body disappeared like it was being blown away in a sandstorm. What is it about summer that makes me so nostalgic?
That was not exactly the end of my story. I recovered after that and got on with my life. But I’m not going to tell you where I am now or what exactly I’m doing. What I will tell you is that I have a roommate named Greg and he’s just about the best roommate a gal like me could ever ask for. There are times when I miss the Whitney who used to coach comedy sports, but then I see all of the opportunities that lie ahead of me. For one thing, there’s my modeling career. On the flip side of that, there’s photography. Mainly, I just want you to know that even though I have changed a lot, I’m still the man I used to be. (Don’t be fooled by my glib word choice. I am a man, always have been, always will be.) Really, the only thing that’s been different since the encounter in the library is that I feel more spontaneous, much closer to the person I’ve always wanted to be. There is more to say. There is always more to say. But Greg will be home soon and I’ve got a little surprise for him. It’s not what you think it is. What good is living in this world if your roommate can’t find time to surprise you?
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