Making It Up

As if you poor people hadn't already had to read too much about my whole "return to Chapel Hill for reunion show" thing, you're about to get a whole new dose, because next Friday, June 6th, I'll be back in town--at the same exactly storefront where the Pressure Boys had their reunion--for the 25th anniversary of the Transactors Improv Company.

The only difference: this time I'll be one of the performers.

Yes, I'll be taking the stage once more, recreating my role as musical accompanist to the southeast's premiere improv theater troupe.  Though the Transactors had formed in 1983 as a children's theater group, they soon shifted to performing improv comedy, and by the time I was in grad school (1987-1990), they'd started to acquire a reputation as really good improv comedians.  I'm pretty sure the person who made me go to my first TIC show was the inimitable (well, actually, I do a pretty decent imitation) Peter Spruyt, who prodded me to go because our friend from our CHHS theater department days, Allison Heartinger, had joined the troupe.  I'm pretty sure that at that time, the quartet consisted of Allison, Tim Johnston, Stephen Cragg, and Mark Miller, but before long we had even more reason to go to Transactors shows, because Mark left and was replaced by yet another CHHS veteran, Dan Sipp.

Dan's obsessive study of film soon led him to create my favorite of his characters, a snobbish and even MORE obsessive film critic named Edward Comus.  Edward usually appeared in a scene Dan and Tim would do where each played half of a Siskel & Ebert-like team of critics reviewing movies suggested by the audience and acted out by Stephen and Allison.  Tim's character invariably loved everything and would give a movie two or even three thumbs up; Edward invariably loathed everything, but the humor lay in why he hated it.  He would choose the most obscure and ludicrous reasons--the wardrobe, the font in the credits, you name it--and then excoriate the film in the most withering tones possible.  My favorite was his dismissal of Casablanca on the grounds that "Bogart is just too thin in this movie.  He looks unhealthy."  And when he had to summarize his review, he would do so not by giving the film one star, but by giving it something tiny and unpleasant, like a rusty thumbtack, or the most negative acknowledgment of all:  "I give it a dry crumbly thing."

Stephen was hilariously creative, but it wasn't long before he decided it was time to move on to Hollywood, and Greg Hohn joined up.  Greg, originally from Minnesota, had been an English major at UNC, which of course made him a worthy individual in my eyes, and his supremely twisted sense of humor didn't hurt, either.  But with Stephen gone, the troupe had lost its one instrumentalist, so Dan suggested that they might want to pick up an accompanist on the side:  me.

Because I play almost exclusively by ear on both guitar and keyboards, I'm actually a pretty good fit for a group that depends on improvised music.  I spent most of my time at the piano, adding background music as necessary (the occasional mad-scientist chords to add suspense, for example) or playing a little entre-scene music while the audience applauded.  Once I made up a lively little sprig of a tune as Dan was coming out to introduce the next scene, and Dan smoothly said "Thanks, PC.  That's a little ditty we call 'Dan's Theme.'"  I promptly played it again, just to mess with him, and from then on he knew that I was going to play it--at least once per show--when he introduced a scene.

I also had to play more or less seriously during two sequences, "Blues" and "Musical."  In the former, I would play a standard twelve-bar blues while the foursome made up lyrics on a painful subject chosen by the audience, anything from dandruff to parking tickets; it wasn't terribly difficult, and in fact it demonstrated just how close to improvisation a lot of blues music actually is.  "Musical," however, was a real challenge.  The audience would suggest a problem, and Tim and Allison, who both had terrific singing voices, would create a scene based on confontring and overcoming that problem--one featuring three improvised songs.  With the blues, the form, melody, and rhythms are all pretty simple and obvious, but in a musical theater setting, we could end up doing everything from a lilting waltz to a steaming tango, and the singers and I had to be careful not to do anything really weird, as we might throw one another off-key or out of tempo.

In "Musical," typically, the problem would be something like "impotence" or "allergies," but one night, someone in the audience--in fact, I'm pretty sure it was Peter Spruyt--yelled out "Tone deafness!" and we were stuck trying to perform songs about a guy who couldn't sing.  Tim gamely started the scene at choir practice, with Allison as his director, and when it came time for him to sing a hymn, he attempted "Bringing in the Sheaves"--which I didn't know.  Nonetheless, while I played something stately and churchy, he delivered an ear-splittingly wretched vocal over the top, simply repeating the phrase "bringing in the sheaves" over and over, and then after a moment turned to the audience and delivered a perfectly sung soliloquy ("Is my voice that bad?  Why is she wincing so?" etc.) which I then followed.  It was a nice bit of work on Tim's part, and it served Peter right for being a smart-ass.

Of course, Peter was the inspiration for my favorite Transactors scene ever, so I shouldn't kvetch.  When asked for a "relationship," most audience members would yell "father and son" or "husband and wife," but one night Peter called out "chicken and egg."  Greg seized the moment boldly, pushing Allison out to center stage, and stood right behind her.  He then tapped her on the shoulder and said, "Umm...excuse me, but I think I was here first."

"SCENE!" yelled Tim at once, and we went to blackout.

I spent about a year and a half with the troupe, performing monthly at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro (which is where the reunion show will be next week) and taking trips to exotic locations such as Wilson, Sanford, and Jefferson, NC, as well as getting a nice weekend at the beach for the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, but my show-biz career was, alas, short-lived.  Once Kelly was pregnant with Ian and we had to move to Fayetteville to do the whole start-a-family-earn-a-living thing, I had to step down from my lofty position as Transactors accompanist, but I'm happy to report that the foursome I worked with--current members Dan and Greg and former members Tim and Allison--will all be there for the reunion, so I'm hoping we can rekindle some of the magic.

Of course, not everyone believes in magic.  During my last weeks with the group, as we were auditioning replacements for me, one guy we'd invited to see the show met with us backstage afterwards.

"That was great!" he said enthusiastically.  He was an experienced musician, but he'd never seen any improv theater before.

"Thanks very much," said Tim.

"I mean, the illusion was complete."

"Illusion?" asked Tim.

"Yeah, it really looked like you were making it all up."

We all looked at each other, smiles fixed on our faces, and knew, just as clearly as we knew anything about each other as performers, that this guy was not going to be sitting on my piano bench.

But if you want to see my ass in it again, come on out next Friday!

Transactors Improv Company: "If you laugh, we're doing comedy. If you don't, we're doing drama."


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 29, 2008 8:53 AM.

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