Break legs everybody! Break legs! - Richard Kuranda
This past Friday, I was on stage as the Williams Street Players (working title) debuted to the masses. An audience of roughly 100 came to see stand-up comedy and the recently assembled troupe was inserted into the proceedings, unbeknownst to the patrons. The question going through my mind in the days and nights leading up to the event was “How are people who are expecting stand up going to receive improv?”
I was asked backstage how I got into improv and comedy. As I explained to my inquisitor, I’ve done it all my life just not within the confines of the “rules of improv”. For years my friends, family and acquaintances have told me I have a quick-witted mind and an even smarter mouth. Not necessarily a compliment, the latter has gotten me out of situations that may have been less than comfortable. The wits are what have really helped me avoid stage fright and awkward social moments. I’ve never really been afraid of being “trapped” or “stuck” anywhere I was allowed to bring my loaded wits as weapons and my unlimited ammunition.
As the In Arena Host for the Chicago Wolves, the head of Game Day Operations quickly realized that me plus a script equalled chaos. I could not for the life of me stay on book during promotions. I would also offer that it was due in part to the frenetic way time-outs would occur as they were dependent on the gameplay and penalties. Management frowned on moving just one aisle over to facilitate the next promotion, so often I would be forced to end one promotion then sprint two or three sections over to prepare for the next. The running and mad dashes weren’t an issue, rather the contestants made this effort a bit of a challenge.
When I began the duties of each game, I would find my contestants as they entered the Allstate Arena. Families, groups, couples…all fair game and ripe for the picking. I knew who would fit the jersey or shirt I was giving away and I knew who would go crazy for a stuffed doll of the mascot “Skates”. I also learned not to tip my hand and offer what the prize was until the promotion. The myriad queries of “is it for a jersey?” that ended with me saying “no” and them suddenly losing interest was maddening. The other sad fact is that the truly best seats for a game were in the 200 level. These were also the cheapest tickets and where it was frowned upon having promotions due to poor lighting and often the “condition” many of the fans were in by the start of period two. Another bad equation: alcohol plus open microphone with no delay…
The powers that be stopped writing scripts and the impromptu nature of the job was narrowed down to “Here’s the start, here’s the sponsor tag line…you fill in the rest.” And so I did for 14 seasons. As I grew in the role, responsibilities were added beyond the routine “Name That Wolf” and “Dance For Your Dinner” spots. I became Monty Hall during our 70 second version of “Let’s Make A Deal“, helped prospective grooms craft unique and memorable ways to ask one of the most important questions they would ask in their lifetime and gave kids the thrill of their day when a six-foot mascot would sneak up on them.
After moving to the Far Western suburbs of Chicago, the commute was death and a few seasons later I left all the glamour and glory of working in minor league hockey behind.
It was a short time after my departure and in talking with some friends that I looked back on the things I did that were successful and those not so successful. Of these I realized that I was a real Prima Donna. I know, right? Hard to believe. In the years I was there, I became a real prick. I went from the kid who showed up to an audition to a smug, self-centered, expectant little shit. I regret that.
Some years later I was approached to perform at a little cafe in Crystal Lake, Illinois for a “readers theater” style presentation called Get Lit(erary). Pieces were selected ahead of time and the performers would read them, nearly exact, but yet were still allowed to add occasional flair and drama to the pieces. Having been living a relatively low-key lifestyle sans trips to Rosemont, I agreed to take part and had an absolute blast.
I quickly became the kid showing up uncertain and slightly afraid of what was to come and have kept that, I think, in the year and a half since I started. I realize every month when I come to perform…I am a cog in wheel. Yes, we may each have our own individual pieces, but the entire package is how people receive it…ironically, just like improv.
This monthly showcase is in conjunction with Williams Street Repertory, an extension of the Raue Center. While I did audition once for WSRep proper, this side door allowed me to “sneak” in and be a part of the goings on. I attended the occasional company meeting, although each time feeling less as someone who belonged and more like someone who was just passing by. It was at one of these meetings that the General Manager and an acting partner, Ivan Ewert, suggested the idea that the Raue and WSRep should attempt improv and that I would be good at it. I agreed, not fully knowing what improv was but having a slightly narrowed view of what it was, and months went by before the subject was broached again.
So, we performed on Friday night. We received laughs, several of them. I introduced a game to the group hours before the performance and it went well. As a group, we are certainly new at this new skill, but all of us seem willing to continue honing it and making it sharp and crackling.
I enjoyed my return to a slightly larger stage than the one I have been on the last 18 months, but I also focused my energies and was a leader and a team player, and not a smug, expectant, self-centered older shit.
I think it worked…at least, that’s what the prick in me says.