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How I landed onstage with my husband, and what I did about it

Wednesday, Apr 19 2006
Reviewers, by definition, tend to shy away from audience participation opportunities. When the actors start scouting the stalls for potential victims in the middle of a show, you can identify the critics in the house by their compulsive twitching, near horizontal posture, and sudden, intense fascination with the contents of their playbills. Given an additional aversion to bright lights and greasepaint, it was not without trepidation that I found myself, along with my husband, on stage before an audience of about 50 for one and a half hours the other evening while a bunch of performers made up songs and sketches based on our love life.

I won't bore you with too many details about how I got myself into this unlikely predicament, except to say that our fellow audience members voted for us. They wanted to hear our story! I still don't quite understand why, for there are few narratives in the history of romance less interesting than ours. The press release for How We First Met — in which four actors and a musician draw on the details of a real-life relationship as a source for improvised comedy — illustrates this point. One previous performance, according to the release, involved a "couple who met online in a Dungeons and Dragons-style chat room," she a married thirtysomething in San Francisco, he a Midwestern 18-year-old living in his parents' basement. On another occasion, "a seemingly conservative pair from Orange County," in town for their 25th wedding anniversary, talked about their first date, during which the woman introduced her new boyfriend to her parents — a couple of bridge-playing nudists, no less. During yet another show, a man popped the question to his girlfriend, going down on one knee and flourishing a ring. Try topping that for drama. Reality TV doesn't come close.

My husband and I might have ended up sitting on the red velvet couch on stage — with headsets and uneasy smiles — because the pickin's were slim the night we attended. (When asked "How did you first meet?" by host and director Jill Bourque at the start, one couple said they worked together on a student newspaper at MIT; another locked eyes at a Harrington's happy hour.) More likely, it was my husband's declaration that we came across each other on a "sex Web site" that sealed this critic's fate.

Sitting up there on the Purple Onion's diminutive stage — my situation all the more surreal for the knowledge that Phyllis Diller, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen once trod those same boards — I drew three particular conclusions (none for the first time). One, that the art of improvisation is hard to master. Two, that when mastered, skillful improvisers can transform seemingly mundane stories into a compelling show. And three, that the show is likely to become less compelling if the mundane details of those seemingly mundane stories are overused.

Improvised productions featuring audience participation are not new. Ever since the 1960s, when improv pioneer Keith Johnstone developed "TheatreSports," a competitive form aimed at forging a similarly strong bond between players and audience members as that between sports professionals and their fans, theater companies have sought new ways to increase audience interaction. In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (playing at the Post Street Theatre), for instance, several regular theatergoers are chosen to compete in the competition alongside the cast. Meanwhile, in the British company Improbable Theatre's recent production of Johnstone's Lifegame at the U.K.'s National Theatre, interviews with guests about their lives were used as the basis for spontaneous sketches. The popularity of works like these hinges upon the exciting unpredictability of using nonactors so extensively, as well as the feeling of community and authenticity created by the sharing of ordinary, real-life experiences.

Given the above, it shouldn't have mattered that my husband and I neither had a thrilling story to tell nor came across as natural performers. The cast reacted quickly to the information they learned about us from Bourque's questions, which ranged from the perfunctory ("How was your first date?") to the bewildering ("If you could find one word to describe your life before you met Chloe, what would it be?"). Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie (the topic of our first conversation, I'm embarrassed to say) and the family cat, the performers proved that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details.

Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the evening on the whole felt hit-and-miss. Inspired moments — Paul Erskine's portrayal of the cat in a pseudo-serious love scene, some clever dubbing over part of a B-movie Western projected onto a screen behind the stage — came and went. Often, however, scenes and songs petered out as half-heartedly as they'd begun. Similarly, the overuse of the same few ideas became predictable. Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintained a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a Beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections felt stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience — straight, gay, old, young — How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun.

Obviously, there are ethical issues when a critic becomes part of the theatrical experience she's meant to be reviewing. How do you remain impartial when you're so deeply involved? How do you judge an audience's view of the stage when you're sitting on it? And how, for the love of Cupid, are you supposed to take notes from up there? I've often wondered whether it's possible to review a production and be in it simultaneously. Thanks to Bourque and her cast for giving me my chance. Now that it's done, it's up to you, dear reader, to decide whether the attempt was successful or merely self-indulgent.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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