Comedy Tonight

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We have become very fond of Virginia Commonwealth University over the years. Ian entered in the fall of 2009 and graduated (B.A., History, with an anthropology minor) this past May, and his brother followed him in 2011 after being accepted as a performance major in the theatre department; Dixon should earn his B.F.A. in May of 2015. Both boys have loved the experience of living in Richmond, and we've certainly enjoyed visiting them there, but with the theatre department in particular, Kelly and I have become very confident that the institution is offering not merely a clear understanding of the subject area's theory, but of its practice as well. Dixon has been trained in standard areas such as acting, movement, and voice, but he's also had the chance to get involved in a lot of theatrical productions, both on the VCU mainstage (where he has played Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Frederick Fellowes in Noises Off) and elsewhere.

The main "elsewhere" has been the Shafer Alliance Lab Theater, an older and less well-appointed theater where students can produce experimental and/or original works, or as the department puts it, works "focused primarily on the essentials of performance in a creative and impartial manner." Dixon's first role at VCU was in a SALT production of The Elephant's Graveyard, and last year he appeared in three SALT shows: Fuddy Meers, directed by student Connor Scully; Wake-Up Call, an original play written by his housemate Elliott Duffy; and Risked (originally titled Awake, with the World Above Our Heads), which he co-wrote and co-directed with another housemate, Maxwell Moore. This year he'll be appearing in two Richmond community shows (FOR WHICH HE GETS PAID, not that his mother and I are excited about it...): Stage B's October production of The Submission, and the Henley Street Theater's spring production of Wittenberg, in which he plays Hamlet.

But to start his junior year, Dixon was given an intriguing opportunity by the powers that be at Theatre VCU: the school's first mainstage production of original comedy: Ramapalooza. In this show, stretching over two weekends, students (and employees, and alumni) get to perform standup (last weekend, September 20-21) and sketch comedy (this weekend, September 27-28).

Ramapalooza 2013.jpg
Standup performances were set up as a contest to find "the Funniest Ram on Campus." Open auditions, held a while back, resulted in a slate of 16 standup comics appearing in five-minute segments on Friday night. Among them were three juniors: Dixon, Elliot Duffy, whose whimsical, cerebral, and occasionally disturbing sense of humor was on fine display, and Becky Granger, whose deadpan delivery worked beautifully with her sometimes-surreal material (very different from the good-natured ingenues she played in Wake-Up Call and Risked). Given the not-so-enviable task of starting the second act, Dixon performed very well, delivering five minutes of often self-deprecating humor ("I'm the least physically intimidating person in the world.. I'm the person you would WANT to meet in a dark alley... 'Hey, I've got a gun!' 'You're ADORABLE!'"). He also mused on the possibility that the busty Asian women in his internet pop-up ads really ARE somewhere out there waiting for him to click.

The three celebrity judges, all standups with ties to the local comedy scene, selected eight finalists who would appear on Saturday night and do TEN minutes each. Host John Porter handed out roses, Bachelorette-style, at the end of the show, and Dixon, Elliot, and Becky all ended up clutching flora.

On Saturday, having worked desperately to polish (and possibly create) some bits for a longer segment, Dixon once again came out at the start of Act II and killed. One of the only performers who repeated absolutely nothing from Friday, he focused this time on existential horror. My favorite line: "I prank-called the suicide hotline. I said 'I'm fine' and hung up." I was laughing throughout, and his final bit about the educational film he claims he saw in anatomy class (a close-up of sperm cells wriggling, followed by a cut to a scientist, rising up from the microscope to announce "These sperms are MINE!:) was so good that my head was actually starting to ache. This is not something that happens often; usually when I laugh so hard my head hurts, I'm watching something that is not merely funny, but professionally funny--Louis C.K., or Eddie Izzard, or the hive-mind of FLOGG riffing on an NFL playoff game during the Christmas holidays. To have one of your offspring produce such delightful agony is a highly gratifying thing.

Dixon was happy just to make it to the finals, but by the end of the show there was no doubt in my mind that he had the best set of the night. Still, there was the possibility that my viewpoint was biased, and that the comics in the judges' chairs might not agree. John Porter brought out the results and announced that the second runner-up was.... Elliot Duffy. The first runner-up was... Becky Granger. And the Funniest Ram on Campus, winner of the coveted horse's ass trophy, a giant dry-mounted print of a fifty-dollar bill, and an ACTUAL fifty-dollar bill, was... Dixon Cashwell.

He was surprised. Not just because he won, but because he now realized that he would have to serve as the host of the Sketch Comedy show going up on the following Friday. (And he's already in some of the sketches, as are Elliot and Becky.)

Perhaps oddly, though, I wasn't surprised by his win, and not just because I agreed with the outcome. I am delighted when Dixon does well, and I can certainly be surprised by the way in which he does well, but I've reached the point now where I have complete confidence in his abilities as a performer. A lot of that is his inborn talent, no question, and his work ethic in theatrical matters is enormous as well, but there's no question that his success owes a great deal to the education he's been getting.

In short, thanks, VCU. Please accept another tuition payment in recognition of my satisfaction with your product.

And if any of you are in Richmond this weekend, I think I can guarantee a good laugh.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 23, 2013 2:42 PM.

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