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Improvising Tragedy – What Happens When a Comedy Show Gets Surprisingly Intimate?

Last Saturday, I encountered an improv show that radically expanded what I believe the form is capable of.

At the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Chelsea, New York, an improv team called Grandma’s Ashes has a Saturday night show titled Grandma’s Ashes Gets Dark. In lieu of getting a one-word suggestion for inspiration, the team invites an audience member to share the story of the worst moment of his or her life.

That’s right. Grandma’s Ashes starts its improv comedy show by asking the audience to think of the most painful thing that’s ever happened to them.

While asking for volunteers, an improviser offers up some past stories as examples—somebody nearly severing her leg in an accident and calling her dad thinking that she might be telling him she loved him for the last time, a person who lost his job, got kicked out of his apartment, and found out his mom died—and the examples are extreme, but have a certain, could-have-happened-in-a-movie quality, a survived-the-storm distance that allows us to laugh.

A young woman volunteers, and improviser Abra Tabak sits down with her for the interview, asking what moment in her life she’d like to talk about. The woman takes a breath and answers:

“It’s when I realized that my dad had been raping my sister for 18 years… and then I remembered that it had happened to me too.”

 

 

Many people celebrated (and rightly so) the incredible stand-up set delivered by Tig Notaro at the Largo in L.A. a few days after being diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s been hailed by Louis C.K. and others as a truly masterful set that encapsulates the astounding power of comedy. “Hello. Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” she begins, launching into an unexpectedly intimate thirty minutes in which she abandons all her previous material and talks about her recent diagnosis, which came quick on the heels of her mother’s death, a serious digestive illness, and a breakup. Want to bet this was not what the audience was expecting?

But the most throat-clenching, holding-back-tears moment comes when Tig seems to question whether the audience is enjoying her set. “I really don’t mean to bum you guys out. And you guys are like, ‘We came for a comedy show.’ Maybe you just should have stayed home—you know, what if I just transitioned right now into silly, just, jokes right now.” Instantly, cries ring out of “No!” One man insists, with passion in his voice, “This is fucking amazing.”

I felt just like that man as I watched Grandma’s Ashes interview this young woman about her story of rape and incest and turn it into a comedy show.

You may be thinking, “How the hell is that possible?” I think everyone was thinking that when the woman began her story, probably including Grandma’s Ashes. As an improviser myself, I can’t imagine being in the position of mining such a heartbreaking story for initiation ideas and not feeling like a total asshole. What had happened to this person and her family was horrific. How do you even navigate interviewing her for details, first of all, and then using those details to make the audience laugh? I was terrified for everyone involved. For a moment I wondered if the group would offer the woman an “out,” or in some way avoid her story. How could this end well?

And then Abra proceeds to do the interview. She thanks the woman for coming on stage and being incredibly brave, and says that this is a place of support. Abra asks her about herself—where she’s from, what she’s doing in New York. The woman turns out to be a comedian herself, involved with improv and sketch. They talk about her background a little bit. At some point Abra says, “Ok, I just want to let you know—everyone in this room really hates your dad.” The audience laughs. “And we love you.” She asks her to describe her father physically, and the woman paints him in wonderfully colorful specifics: short legs, a long torso, too much neck, the yellowest teeth you’ve ever seen. “So a big, disgusting monster,” an improviser says, and the team makes some jokes about his appearance. As they talk, the woman struggles a little as she gets closer to the story, apologizing for needing to catch her breath. The team is warm and supportive, and Abra says “You’ve already done an amazing job describing your father—we totally have enough if you want to stop.” Another team member adds, “Don’t talk about anything you don’t want to talk about.” The woman thanks them, and goes on to share how her sister took her to a lake house to tell her what had been happening, and how, once she realized she had repressed memories of being raped by her father as a young child, she was unable to file charges because of the statute of limitations on rape. Her sister could press charges, and her father was arrested just last year.

It feels like the interview lasts a long time, at least as a prelude to a comedy show. But I am in awe of the team’s navigation of it. They inject humor when possible but never minimize her experience. They let her talk—when she gets to the really rough part—without interruption, and celebrate her courage and strength in coming to New York to do comedy. She says, “Comedy saved my life.”

And as I sat in the UCB Theatre with a couple friends and many strangers, I could absolutely feel that to be true. The laughter that comes out of pain, out of darkness—the humor that brings light to it, that makes it seem possible to go on—is a shared experience that permeates history but doesn’t often reach the comedy stage with such immediacy. As with Tig Notaro’s unexpectedly personal stand-up, the Grandma’s Ashes audience last Saturday night was a part of something special that nobody could have expected. There was humanity in that room in a way I can’t completely express.

That’s not to say that everyone in the theater is as sensitive and engaged as the improvisers on its stage. In fact, the gentlemen seated behind me are absolutely repugnant. They’re first-timers at the theater (some of them, anyway), celebrating a buddy’s birthday. They’re drunk and chatty. I hear lots of disgusting little “jokes” in which they invoke the worst possible things you can say about rape, things I can barely entertain a human being saying—”she deserved it,” and so on— “ironically.” They sigh at the length of the interview. A woman near me tells them to “Shut the fuck up,” to which one of them responds, “It’s comedy, not therapy, sweetheart. Hate to tell ya.”

Of course, people want you to shut the fuck up during a comedy show too. Of course, the fact that we’re at a comedy show shouldn’t have anything to do with whether or not you’re allowed to act like an inhuman pile of garbage. Of course, comedy still gives a shit about people who’ve been raped…Doesn’t it? No doubt there’s some animosity between certain people in comedy and certain people in feminist spaces, and the Daniel Tosh-induced maelstrom about rape jokes didn’t help matters. But I think most decent people, even if they had expected a night of superficial entertainment and weren’t looking for a “thoughtful” night out, would listen and go along for the ride, suspending their judgment given the fact that an actual human being was revealing an actual personal tragedy right in front of them. These Neanderthals would later be outside during intermission, loudly declaring that “We paid to get in, so we’re allowed to do whatever the fuck we want!” Like that’s been true about anything, ever.

Even so, I’m really excited about the possibilities and actualities of the kind of show Grandma’s Ashes is doing. No, this isn’t therapy. The performers aren’t trained therapists or trauma experts, even though their skilled and respectful navigation of the interview couldn’t have been handled any better. This audience came out to laugh, and we did laugh, as the team performed a half-hour of improvised scenes with initiations taken from the interview. There were actors at a Too Much Neck workshop, police officers drawn from a strange detail of her story that involved them telling her to “enjoy Spring Break” while they investigated the allegations, and a man identified as “the worst human ever” who is punished by being forced to endure a Six Flags roller coaster under hilarious conditions. No scene ever dealt with rape. But they all came from the woman’s story and from her perspective. She laughs throughout the entire set, perhaps the most of anyone.

Could this kind of experience happen if it wasn’t in the context of an audience coming to a theater, expecting to see a funny show? I think, for example, a talk show audience prepared for the opposite experience would have a hard time accepting the comedy as appropriate, and finding the humor in this heartbreaking story is precisely what was so cathartic about it. I can’t speak for the woman who was brave enough to share her history on stage, but I felt like I had been through something profound just as a bystander. I don’t know if I could be that vulnerable to an unknown sea of faces (knowing that jerks like the guys behind me would be saying, “I heard this was funny but she just got weird”) but I imagine that it could be a wonderful release to laugh along with a crowd while extremely talented performers honor you with their comedy. That’s exactly how it felt—like Grandma’s Ashes honored the woman’s experiences and took them as a precious gift that they had been allowed to play with, with her consent and appreciation.

Revolutionary, isn’t it? Have you ever experienced something like that at a comedy theater? I think many trauma groups would be extremely interested in the work Grandma’s Ashes is doing, even though processing trauma is not likely what they set out to do. And I don’t know how safe an environment it is for someone who’s experienced trauma, given the reaction of the Human Sewage Buckets behind me.

I do know that I was greatly inspired by what they did, and it reaffirmed my belief that improvisation is powerful, extraordinary stuff. What are the possibilities implied by a successful show like this? How might Philadelphia’s comedians take this example as a proof of concept: that you can begin your show in the scariest unknown, with all sorts of dangerous potential, and discover joy?  [Editor’s note: Readers, we’d love to hear your responses in the comments—has a show or group in Philly ever moved you like this? Or have you yourself ever had the challenge of turning something tragic into 20-25 minutes of improvised comedy?]

I do have lingering thoughts about how a team manages to consistently request so much of its audience without feeling like it’s exploiting their pain. It is, after all, a show that people pay to see, that the improv team wants to be successful. But there was nothing that felt predatory or titillating in the show I saw on Saturday. If the team creates a space of respect and love, then I believe it’s possible to have a genuine dialogue, on the volunteer’s terms, that feeds a comedy show with the rawest raw material imaginable.

An improv team attempting to engage with its audience on so personal and intimate a level needs to trust each other completely. Perhaps their first attempts at the form begin in rehearsal using their own stories. It might also be important to be prepared for failure, in the sense that the team would sooner shoulder the weight of a dying show than panic and pull something questionable from the interview for a cheap laugh. However, if the team is totally supportive of one another and of their audience participant, then it’s unlikely they would make choices that would compromise that trust. This is certainly the kind of work that a team considers after a long time of playing together. Every member of Grandma’s Ashes seemed confident, thoughtful, and relaxed, even when scenes faltered or a choice didn’t land. And it may seem obvious, but the most important element for attempting a show like this is just plain old being a good person. It’s vitally necessary to care about other people, and to make their experience sharing their intimate history as positive as possible.

I am thrilled by the power and potential of comedy. When we can seek out our darkest moments, and together find our way back into the light, that’s not just entertainment.

That is life itself.

Hilary Kissinger is a writer and improviser splitting time between New York and Philadelphia. She performs with Philly Improv Theater House Team Davenger and writes about movies for FilmMisery.com. Chat with her on Twitter @HilaryKissinger.

5 comments to Improvising Tragedy – What Happens When a Comedy Show Gets Surprisingly Intimate?

  • Steve K.

    This is a wonderful article, Hilary. Thank you for sharing it!

    To respond to the editor’s note:

    Two months after my husband died, my Harold troupe Marjean performed at the Providence Improv Festival. For a get, we asked the audience “What happened to cause the last time you did a double-take?” The one and only response we got, loud and clear, was that they’d discovered a “corpse in a bathtub.”

    Although Peter hadn’t died in a bathtub, I had found his body, and everyone in my cast knew that and so did many people in the audience (but not the guy who gave us that suggestion).

    There was an microscopically small moment when I did a little flip inside, and then the 8 of us just attacked the opening. The opening was spectacular: we were endowed that bathtub with all kinds of descriptive specificity, and the description of the crust lining the rim of the tub led to a similar description of martini glass rim, and on and so forth, and not a single element of the opening was wasted and the set was phenomenal.

    The parallel here is taking a very concrete input (which in this case, even though most of the audience wasn’t privy to it, had a very tangible backstory that the cast was aware of) and respecting the source while using it as a springboard for discovery. It sounds like like the Grandma’s Ashes people are very skilled at “springboard for discovery” and it’s a good skill for improvisers to have in general.

    There’s a vulnerability inherent in placing yourself onstage. The ability to navigate that vulnerability for yourself, your teammates, or people from the audience you bring into the performance is essential. We all have some deep, dark corner that we probably would prefer to keep hidden — you can be pretty much guaranteed that at some point in your stage career, that secret will be triggered. Knowing hat the probability that it *will* happen is high will help you when it in fact happens. If you’re on your game, it will enhance, not inhibit, your performance. If it’s your trigger, be honest. If it’s that of another, be compassionate. These simple guidelines will help steer you through many onstage hazards.

  • Alison

    Steve, thank you for writing such a thoughtful, personal response. You make some excellent new points, and I think your advice in the last paragraph will be extremely helpful to a lot of performers.

  • Hilary Kissinger

    Thanks for sharing that story, Steve. Really well put, especially the idea of navigating the vulnerability of everyone on the stage. That’s one thing I really appreciate about working with a team consistently over a longer period of time than you get with short projects or classes – the deepening sense of trust and knowledge of each other increases the intimacy of the territory you’re able to explore together. It can be really scary to come across personally triggering material with people you don’t know as well. I wonder if that inhibits some people from trying improv? I know that some of my early classes did not feel like a safe space that I’d feel ok if certain subjects came up.

  • Antony Quinn

    Thank you for this, Hilary. I had a related experience when devising a scene 3 years ago about a man whose wife was dying of cancer. I’d not performed in over 20 years, and had not encountered devised theatre or improv before. The scene was utterly engaging, and the emotions I experienced while performing stayed with me for hours and days afterwards. The possibility of encountering those rare moments of truth and beauty is the reason I continue to act and improvise today.

  • Hilary Kissinger

    Hi Antony! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been in some plays where improvisation was a key part of the rehearsal process, and I agree – those moments when something honest and human is discovered by surprise is my favorite part of the work.

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