What I remember about the first few months of “One Month at a Time” is how weird the process was in the beginning. Often, it was I’d have an idea, it would get shot down and then we’d try something else.
Generally speaking, the months I learn the most are when I make myself uncomfortable. That’s true, regardless of who comes up with the idea.
After Veganuary was fully underway, we started to toss around ideas about what to do for the next One Month At A Time.
In a features meeting, my best pitch was to do a Couch-to-5K. It seemed like a natural transition from healthy eating, and sounded sort of easy, but nobody seemed interested. February is cold, and my pale legs probably wouldn’t make good pictures anyway.
Finally, someone suggested I join a local improv comedy troupe. The plan would be for me to immerse myself in local comedy, attend workshops, go to some shows, and (hopefully) by the end of the month, perform in front of a live audience.
The last part seemed like an invitation to a beating.
“Let’s do the 5K thing,” I tried again.
We put it to a vote.
I lost: 4 to 1.
It wasn’t like I didn’t have any performance experience. Outside of my work at the paper I’m a part-time announcer at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, reading weather and announcements in the morning.
I also host an indie rock/alt-country show called “Lost Highways,” but none of this is really “live performance,” exactly. The audience is there, but it’s sort of abstract. We can’t see each other.
The last time I remember performing in front of a live audience was in high school. My senior year, I was in a couple of plays, including the musical comedy “Li’l Abner.” I played sleazy salesman, “Available Jones.”
We did the show a couple of times. People laughed, I thought?
But I wasn’t sure.
So, I reached out to an old school friend and theater buddy, Krista Baker.
In high school, Krista was a theater monster. She was funny, she could act, and she could sing. She was utterly fearless, while I was kind of awkward. I had an on-again-off-again stammer that usually tripped me up whenever I got nervous, but in the fall of our senior year, Krista talked me into joining her on the Drama Club’s homecoming float as one half of a mirroring mime act.
“All you have to do is follow me,” she said.
And I did. We might have even placed in the judging.
After that, we did a few plays together, but I didn’t remember if I was any good. So, I called her out in California and asked.
Krista said, “I honestly can’t say. I don’t think you were terrible. I think if you were really bad, I’d remember that. I would have called you on it, I think. Yeah, I absolutely would have told you if you sucked.”
Actually, she didn’t really remember me in any of the plays we did, even though she had pictures to prove it.
She remembered the homecoming float, of course.
“You did a good job there,” she said. “I think that says you take direction well?”
But she didn’t remember much more than that, not even “Li’l Abner,” which was the biggest thing I did.
“Jeez, Bill, it’s been 20-some years.”
So, at best, I wasn’t all that memorable. At worst, I was totally forgettable, but maybe not horrible.
Krista thought it was good I was doing this now. It sounded like fun.
“I think this will be a good thing for you.”
So I made contact with Melissa Elsworth with the Improv 304 practice group that meets Tuesday nights in the basement of Taylor Books. I explained what I wanted to do and why.
She said, “Just come on.”
So I did. On a cold and wet Tuesday evening, I met up with a scaled down version of the comedy crew being led through a set of exercises by Jim-Bob Williams, a chemical engineer and aspiring comedian.
Williams explained that the group formed in January of 2015, mostly as something for people to do during the winter months, but then survived the cold.
“I think we’ve met every Tuesday night since then,” he said.
They share the space with the occasional figure drawing class. A very accurate drawing of a naked female torso was displayed prominently on the wall facing the street.
Membership among the group is loose and laid back.
“We’re all beginners here,” Williams said. “None of us is perfect.”
Still, he added that they worked under a few guidelines — many of them were posted on the wall.
“First, please return all dishes to Taylor Books at the end of the class,” he said. “They’re really great to let us come here. So we try to be respectful of them.”
Next, Williams said, “Remember, everything is ‘yes, and …’ If your partner says you’re at a NASCAR race, you’re at a NASCAR race, but you can build on it. It could be at a race where all the petroleum has run out, and everyone is running around like it’s ‘The Flintstones.’”
Similar to that, the next rule was, “Don’t Deny.”
“That just kills the scene,” he said. “Deflect, change, but don’t say no.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail” was the next guideline.
Not everybody is funny all the time, Williams said. Jokes misfire. You screw up, but you can learn from all of it.
“Besides, we’re just here to have fun.”
Next, he said, “make your partner look good.”
Williams said a lot of stand-up comedians are really bad at improv. They’re focused on their jokes, what they have to say and not making anything funny cooperatively.
“Stand-up comedy is more structured,” Williams said. “You have your jokes and you do them. With improv, the comedy comes organically.”
Improv performers are encouraged to save each other. If someone draws a blank, hits a wrong note or otherwise gets lost, the other players can jump in and rescue the scene.
Williams said there were other lesser rules, like not using props. Improv performers can just create what they need out of thin air, just using their imagination.
For a little over an hour, Williams led David Lomely, Jack Mallah, Rafael Barker and myself through a series of improv exercises called games, similar to what was played on the television show, “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?”
Williams was as much a part of the action as a gentle director of the action, and I was not very good.
During the alphabet game, where the five of us had a conversation using sentences that ran in alphabetical order (ex. “A good time was had by all.” “Been nice seeing you.”), I got lost twice; couldn’t remember what came after the letter V or was it H?
It seemed to me that I stumbled and stuttered my way through every exercise, mostly causing chaos, like a dazed bull set loose in a high school cafeteria. I froze up. I got confused. What I said wasn’t funny and sounded vaguely horrible.
My mind wandered. I kept staring at the naked torso on the wall, wondering if I’d recognize her with her clothes on. Probably not — the artist hadn’t included her head.
By the time 7:30 p.m. rolled around, I was a nervous mess with a throbbing headache and a knot in my stomach.
Barker and Lomely told me to relax, reminded me that nobody was perfect.
“It takes a while,” Barker said. “I’ve been coming for about six weeks now.”
It seemed to me that I had a lot to learn and was a long way from being ready for anything like a live performance in front of a real audience, which we needed to find before the last week of February.