If there was a blood-red moon inside your theater and you could harness it, would you?
If there was a frightful beast cowering in the corner of the stage consumed by need and hunger, would you feed her?
If there was a young man whose aspirations have come to nothing and who fears an abyss of loneliness, would you whip him into a frenzy of revelry from which there’s no recovering?
Listen carefully, with your whole body – lean forward and soak in the words: we have no freedom but ourselves and no recourse but to the present.
There, on the stage, in a little area of light in a dark room, we are straining ourselves to communicate, sure. More than that, we are straining to experience. To transcend. To do something so strange and accidental that we transform not only our voices or our bodies, but our lives.
Enchant. A moment where our face breaks, like fine china thrown at the floor, into a grin of delight and whimsy.
Horrify. Hold up a mirror to the quaking, reassuring longing inside of every single human body.
The first time I auditioned for an improv troupe there was a questionnaire. And it asked “What is the most inspiring show you have ever seen.” 1
It was raining. Everywhere. The streets were filled with mud. On the stage in the middle of this mucky scene there were two men. Their show may or may not have been called “The Piss Olympics,” but its premise was that they were competing for some dubious honor through bodily functions. They were so handsome and I was so young. I stood there in the rain, not even particularly close to the stage, with my fifteen-year-old best friend standing next to me. We could feel the perversity of the moment. I watched the performers on stage throw every bit of themselves on to the pyre of comedy. They were bruising their knees, spitting, wheezing, throwing themselves on the ground, proclaiming uncomfortable truths, making each other erupt with laughter – for no audience, in the rain. The rawness, the purity of that: everything I have ever loved in improv has been dangerous to some extent, menacing, beautiful. To dance on the knife edge with each other. To acknowledge the futility of it all, and then to bask in the momentary profundity of what we can create together anyway.
By all accounts Del Close was a weird dude. Some call him a founder of improv, others guru or teacher: I think he is our patron saint. That to which we refer when we need a jolt of courage or a moment of irrational inspiration. There have been improv generations since then. I am rather cautious of the “great man” narrative that surrounds the well-worn narrative of “Del Close, founding father, perpetual King of improv and Final Word on the art.” However, I am told Del said we were to “Enchant and Horrify” and I feel like he knew what he was talking about. He once threw spaghetti into late night horror show audiences; he was a fire swallower, a provocateur, and an open, flayed heart in a cruel world.
From Saint Del we learn to push the possibilities too far. To engage the mud, the moon, the rain, the spit, the crude firmament of delight.