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Theater Thursday: The Servant of Two Masters

Acting hasn't been a part of my life for too long, but in the last few years it has been incredibly influential and undeniably eye-opening. As I approach my eleventh production in almost five years, the conversations I've had and the memories I've shared with my theater family have made me realize I don't remember all of my previous productions as well as I had thought. So this blog series seeks to delve deep into the experiences I've had thus far, as few as they may be when compared to those my many people I've acted beside.

As The Mousetrap wrapped up, Patrick had been talking to me about his plans for a summer show. Titled A Servant of Two Masters, it was an old script that he had hoped to take some liberties with, allowing the cast involved to try their hands at some improvisational humor. It didn't take much thought on my part. The chance to do improv on stage? Where do I sign up?!

Left to right: Amanda Hayes, Mitchell Dallman, Stephanie White, myself, Shane Keran, Bri Keran. Front: Kerry Townsend.

Left to right: Amanda Hayes, Mitchell Dallman, Stephanie White, myself, Shane Keran, Bri Keran. Front: Kerry Townsend.

Landing the Lead!

For most of my shows, I barely remember the audition or rehearsal process. Some stand out, like my first audition ever with The Glass Menagerie, or the taxing and confusing rehearsals for The Rimers of Eldritch, but mostly they all just blend together in a nebulous memory of theater life. A Servant of Two Masters, however, was a very different story. The nature of auditions and rehearsals for this show was so fundamentally different from all other shows I had done that there was no way it couldn't stand out on its own. While the audition process did feature some line readings, that was only a small part of the process. After each person did a short line reading on their own, Patrick Spradlin (the director of this show) called actors in one by one to improv a simple scene with one of a number of props on a table at the back of the stage. He said that the improv needed to be sustained for at least 1 minute. I remember grabbing a telephone handset and spending the next several minutes (Patrick decided he would just see how long I would maintain the scene for) acting as a young Midwestern woman consoling her friend who just went through a rough break up. After this session was over, we did a group improv audition with rotating actors on stage at a time. It was some of the most fun I've ever had auditioning for a production.

Shortly after Patrick text me and said he would like me to play the role of Truffaldino. I accepted, and he asked me if I knew who that was. I said I did not, and was pleasantly surprised to hear it was the lead. The titular character, even. I swear I could hear my ego inflating at the news. My first lead role! How exciting! Granted, the other shows I had been in really didn't have traditional leads, so to speak. They were more a collection of roles, some of which were meatier or more fulfilling than others. And that isn't to say that Servant wasn't of a similar caliber - this was an ensemble cast, each with their own interesting facets and amusing mannerisms to provide to the entire production. But I was playing THE servant of two masters, and so I felt comfortable claiming it to be a leading role.

Kerry Townsend, in his theatrical debut, alongside myself.

Kerry Townsend, in his theatrical debut, alongside myself.

How do you Improve your Improv? (Just add an 'E')

Improv is not an easy art to learn. Acting, on its own, is a difficult skill to hone, and takes much practice and effort (as do all skills). Improv is the next step for comedic acting - it is progressing ahead in your ability to assume a role, advancing to the point where you can believably - and humorously - assume that role even in the absence of a script, and still maintain internal consistency with the rest of the production. It was easier for some of us to grasp than others, that's for sure. And Patrick did his part to not only give us room to grow, but also to provide us with a night of training alongside the professional improve group Second City (which I - regrettably - missed out on due to my job).

I was acting alongside a number of returning thespians, and when it comes to the world of improv comedy, Shane Keran is among the best. Shane and I discovered a shared affinity for improv, as it came naturally to both of us, and that meant the few times our characters were on stage together became a grab bag of one-liners and random jokes. Additionally, Amanda Hayes proved to be a skilled improvisational actor, and Bri Keran, Nicole Rotheleutner, Mitchell Dallman, and Stephanie White were all incredibly adaptable, capable of rolling with whatever shenanigans were thrown their way. While we did have a few rough shows here and there, where jokes didn't land as we expected, overall I'd say that by the second weekend we were all ready to bring something new every single night.

I learned that if you want to sell improvisational comedy inside of a larger production, then that comedy needs to have two primary components: speed and consistency. You can't dwell on an improv joke, especially if it doesn't resonate with the audience in the way you expected. As soon as the words leave your mouth, if you don't detect any laughter, you and your scene partner(s) need to pick up the scene and keep running with it. Dead air is the bane to most comedic productions (except for specific circumstances), and with improv it is even doubly so.

And the last one is consistency, and this is especially true for added jokes and gags in the middle of larger productions. Whatever you come up with, whatever you and your scene partner are working on, it still has to fit with the setting, tone, and established truths of the show around it. It has to be consistent with other jokes and gags that already exist in the script. Occasionally you can get away with something a bit more abstract, something from out of left field, but ultimately it needs to seem as if it had a home in the show all along. In the case of Servant, for instance, the show takes place in Italy, has a narrative that focuses on mistaken identities and compounded lies. The exact timeframe was a bit more fluid, as we wanted it to be vaguely reminiscent of the original script's era, but also speak to a more modern audience in the process. However, despite the occasional joke about a cell phone, or referencing a current event, we generally tried to keep our material as constrained to the original script as possible. And as for those times we did deviate and make it more modern, well, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. But that's all part of the process.

By the end of it, I learned that the best way to improve your improv was to simply put forth the effort. Keep at it, try new things, and encourage your fellow actors to do the same, and after some time it'll almost feel like second nature.

Back row, Left to Right: Mitchell Dallman, Shane Keran, Bri Keran, Bob Spears, myself, Brianna Engels, Christian Halstad. Front row, left to right: Nicole Rotheleutner, Amanda Hayes, Kerry Townsend, Stephanie White

Back row, Left to Right: Mitchell Dallman, Shane Keran, Bri Keran, Bob Spears, myself, Brianna Engels, Christian Halstad. Front row, left to right: Nicole Rotheleutner, Amanda Hayes, Kerry Townsend, Stephanie White

Live Performance - 2015

There really isn't much to say about these live performances. I remember I was more excited for this show than any other previous one. I was the lead, after all, and the show had a number of monologues that I delivered directly to the audience. I played most of my scenes down stage, just a few feet away from the front row. I made eye contact, I called theater goers out, I ate a lot of food, and I got to roll around, tumble, chew and spit out food, contort my body, jump into and out of wardrobes, and have general crazy, high-spirited hijinks. It was a lot of fun, and a number of people who came to see it said it was incredibly funny.

Sadly, however, this was the first show that I remember being painfully aware of how many open seats there were in the audience. A Servant of Two Masters was a show without a built-in audience. And at that time, our area was particularly partial to familiar productions. We didn't sell out a single show, and barely filled half the audience on a few nights. One scene in particular, the dining room scene, which was supposed to be the comedic climax of the whole show (and trust me, I was sweating so bad that it definitely felt like it was), was met with crippling silence as I sprinted from one side of the stage to the other, over and over again, mixing up orders and lying my way through the following confrontations.

All in all, the show was a lot of fun, and one I'd love to revisit at some point years down the road. I've only grown as an actor since then, and am confident I could deliver an even better performance for both the audience and my fellow players. And hopefully do it all in front of a larger house.

But when it comes to filling the audience, I had nothing to worry about with my next show, Bill W. & Dr. Bob...