I am the Walrus

A performance at the PIT…Micah is on the right

Friday I have an audition at Groundlings, an improv group in LA. Here’s the deal; I can opt not to audition and just take the first two intro improv classes. Or, I can audition, and hopefully bypass the introductory classes and go straight to Level 1. I don’t mind taking intro classes, but they’re each over $300, so if I’m good enough to get into Level 1, I might as well try out.

Naturally, I’m nervous. I took the first two courses at the PIT (People’s Improv Theatre) in New York, so I do have experience. There are three main improv theatres in New York: The PIT, The Magnet, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade. I only picked the PIT because the classes worked with my schedule. I ended up loving it. I went into each class petrified, and it’s not like I got less nervous as the class went on. Every time you get up in front of people, you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen or what you’re going to do. You hope to be quick and smart and ultimately, funny in your responses, but you never know. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes your scene partner sucks, sometimes you just can’t spit out a complete sentence. I’m picking at my nails just thinking about it.

The second class I took had some amazing people in it. A couple of them were on teams that performed and just did the class, I think, to help us and make us better. Or maybe just for practice. In every theatre there are teams that have performances during the week. Obviously, no one in the first two levels could be on a team, but it was awesome to work with these guys – Jamie and Micah. They were just so good. I used to think that theatre actors were the best actors, but now I definitely think improv actors take the cake. I was so excited when I got up there with Micah or Jamie. I felt safe, like no matter what I said, it would work out. Feeling safe allows you to go for it, too.

Here are the basics to what I learned in improv. No. 1: never say no. The response to anything someone says is ‘yes, and..’. If you say no, you kill the scene, not to mention make your partner look bad. If your partner says, “I love your blue sweater!”, you say, “Thanks! (and…) I got it Ross, 10 bucks. I love that store.” You don’t say, “Ummm I’m not wearing a blue sweater, what’s wrong with you?” Which brings me to No. 2: don’t ask questions. When you ask a question you put everything onto your scene partner. Make decisions. Make statements. Instead of saying, “Why are you staring at yourself in the mirror?” say, “You are so pretty, I wish I looked like you.” No. 3: establish the relationship. Who are you to each other? Don’t just say, “Hi.” Say, “Hi, Rebecca! Mom is nagging me about Dad’s birthday. Let’s just make her happy and get him money.” You’ve given your partner a name, you’ve established that you’re sisters, and you’ve given her something to work with. No. 4: Why is this day important? There has to be something significant about this day to make it important, to make it funny. It’s your birthday and your best friend of all time forgot and you gave her the biggest surprise party of her life only last year. You’ve decided to break up with you’re boyfriend or leave your husband, today. Your dog died. You’re fed up with your boss making you feel small and insignificant, and today is the day you’re going to stand up to him. These might not be the best examples, but you get the idea.

This is only the beginning of understanding improv. The most important thing I learned, is that you don’t need to be funny. If you can be realistic and listen to your partner and respond and make sense of it, you can make a good scene. I always hold onto this, because I don’t consider myself funny. Sarcastic, yes, but not funny.

Jamie…aka Sam Rockwell

I didn’t have to audition for the PIT, so I have no idea what is going to happen today. All I know is that it’s a group audition with 16 of us, and it will run like a class for maybe two hours. That’s all I know. There’s nothing to prepare, which is something still hard for me to grasp. As a control freak, I love knowing what’s to come, my lines, exactly what I need to do to prepare for an audition. There’s nothing to get nervous about, which makes me all the more nervous.

It starts at 12pm. I wake up at 8am to make some small changes on my resume (OK, big changes – Sandra butchered it). I feel good about it when I’m finished, even though my head shots are still sub par. I shower and get ready and leave by 10:30. It shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to get there, but I need to stop at Staples to print out my new resumes and staple a couple to my headshots. I reach Staples by 11, and I’m out of there in less than 10 minutes. Before I came in, I checked on the GPS that the theatre is only six minutes away. I’ve got plenty of time. Turn on the GPS. Or try to. It goes blank. Of course. Fuck. OK, google maps or whatever thing I have on my phone. Look up directions, and it says six minutes away. Great, must be the same as the GPS.

Drive a minute before I have to make a right on La Brea. Apparently, I should have turned left. I continue driving further and further away from my destination. By 11:37, I start to panic. In the email, it said that you can’t be late. If you walk in after 12, you can’t come in. You have to schedule your audition for another time. I do not want to go through this again. I’m nervous enough as it is. Not to mention, how unprofessional can I be? Give yourself enough time to get to an audition. Get there an hour early. I know this. I messed up.

Pull over, ask a guy who looks like he might shoot me, but I don’t care. Which way is south? He tells me to keep going the way I’m going. OK, this must be right. I keep going. No, no, no, this isn’t freaking right. Now I’m in panic mode. I don’t know what to do. I call Mike. For what, I don’t know. He doesn’t answer. I call again. He doesn’t answer. Now I’m a mess. I don’t know what to do. I’m half screaming, half crying. Pull over, Google Groundlings and call. A very calm lady answers the phone. Hi, I’m supposed to be there for an audition and I don’t know where I am. “OK, what street are you on?” La Brea. “What was the last street you passed?” I tell her. “Oh yea, you’re kind of far. You need to turn around.” I’ve already turned around. I just have to go straight on this road for a while, then make a left onto Melrose Ave and I’m there. It’s 11:45. Audition in 15 minutes. OK, I’m on my way. What’s the fastest, easiest way to park? “Street parking. There’s 2-hour meters.”

There’s nothing on the block where the theatre is. On the next block, nothing on this side, but I see something across the street. Pull a quick U-turn. Parallel to oncoming traffic. Sorry! I wave to them like they give a shit, and finally Austin Powers my way into the spot. Put my card into the meter and wait for approval. Waiting….It’s 11:59. Approved. I sprint across the street and up the block. Run past the entrance. Storm through the doors, panting. 12:01. People are hanging around the lounge, some still signing in. I’m not late. They haven’t started. Catch my breath. Sign in.

Holy crap. I made it. I’m shaking. I quickly use the bathroom and try to calm myself down. I come out and still, everyone is just hanging around. I text Mike – he called me twice on my frantic drive here but I had no time to answer. I tell him I just walked in at 12:01. I almost had a heart attack; good thing you didn’t answer. “Oh good, I was getting nervous.” Another chick walks in late as we’re about to walk to another building. I’m totally not even the late person. Our teacher didn’t even notice me before. Safe.

Still taking deep breaths as we make our way across the street to another building for the rehearsal. I need to relax before this audition starts. We file into a small room with seats on one side facing a small stage on the other side. Everyone takes a seat. Breathe. Our instructor introduces himself – Jeff. He’s totally chill and makes us feel comfortable – this is the world of improv as I know it. First he gives a spiel about the audition and Groundlings in general. If you want to make it to a house team, get in line. It’s very competitive and he makes it seem – impossible – to get onto a house team. That’s fine. I’m not interested in that. I just want to make myself a better actor. “This audition is for you, too. Every house has a style, and you might not like the Groundlings style.” This is very interesting since I’ve only done improv at the PIT. I wonder, how different can it be?

Winnie the Pooh, my first theatre production 1992

We start by sitting in a circle and talk a bit about our background with improv or just our background in general. It’s a mixed group. Some have done improv at other theatres, some have only done acting classes, and a few have already taken those first two intro classes for Groundlings. We do a warm-up, then play a game. I forget what it’s called. Jeff says a sentence. “Ann went to the grocery store and…” We’re in a circle. He turns to the right and she then turns to her left, makes eye contact with her partner, and says one word to continue the story. We continue by turning to the person to our right, making eye contact, saying one word, and hopefully making sense of our story. It’s easy. No big deal.

After another game, we all sit back down and Jeff has two of us come on stage to do a scene together. We’ll each do two scenes with two different people. And that’s it. That’s the audition. At the PIT, our instructor would always just tell two people to get up there. I’m hoping Jeff will say this so I can jump up there. This way, I can get it over with – the longer I sit, the more nervous I get. It doesn’t go that way. Jeff picks two people, and I’m not one of them. I enjoy a lot of the scenes. Some of the people are really good – I notice that everyone who has already taken the introductory classes really know what they’re doing.

This tiny little, cute mousy girl gets up there with an older guy who looks like Tim Robbins. He is good – she is not. She reminds me of how I was when I first started – afraid to look stupid. She’s not taking any risks and she’s obviously nervous. At one point, she gives him a pair of sneakers and tells him she put something in them to give him a super power. Jeff interrupts. “Make it real.” OK, there’s a difference between Groundlings and the PIT. Anything goes at the PIT. And I mean anything. The most ridiculous things can happen on the PIT stage. So the Groundlings wants more reality. That’s cool. I don’t think I’ll mind (I’m not that imaginative, anyway).

Tim Robbins sits back down, and of course, I’m called up for a scene with Mousy. He gives us very basic parameters: “you two are hotel maids, and somebody discovers something. Go.” I lay down on the floor and wake up from sleeping on the bed. Mousy yells at me for sleeping on the job. Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t even realize I fell asleep. How long was I out? Jeff interrupts. “No questions.” Shit. I must have only been out for a second. Blah blah blah, she tells me I’m tired because of all the drugs I’m smoking. I deny it, saying it’s candy. Jeff continues to help us along from the side. “Find it on her, take it out of her pocket.” She does, and I’m caught. She threatens to flush it down the toilet. No! Wait! We’re best friends, but I will totally tell Bobby you’re cheating on him. We go on for a little longer and he finally ends the scene. Ugh. He gives us some feedback. Something about liking my choices, but I can only deny the drugs once, then give in, because I have to move the scene along. Right, got it. He liked our use of the stage – we were all over the place. I feel crappy about it.

Mousy sits down, and I get my second scene partner. This kid is funny. Definitely gay. Jeff places two chairs on the stage next to each other. “OK, you two sit next to each other in the office, and it’s one of your birthday’s today. Go.” We both make the decision to start typing on the computers in front of us. He starts the dialogue. “Man, I feel so old today.” Yea, seriously, I feel older every day. He then stands up and peers over the cubicle, but I don’t see him. Jeff interrupts. “Do it again, she didn’t see you.” Dammit, I didn’t even notice him moving. I should have been more aware. This time he pretends to put on a cone party hat and peer again over the cubicle. I look at him and realize it’s his birthday. Wait, it’s your birthday! He freaks out, so excited, wanting to know what I got him for his birthday. He is off the charts hilarious. He runs over to my side of the cubicle. “Oh my God, there’s no way it can be better than what you got me last year!” He is just waiting in anticipation for me to tell him what I got him. I already made the decision that I forgot his birthday, but I try to play it off. I totally didn’t forget your birthday. “I know you didn’t!” He is so excited, I decide to change my mind and tell him I did get him something. I should have just stuck with my original plan of telling him I forgot, but I don’t know why, I feel like I should have gotten him something. He’s now searching around his desk and in his drawers for my present. OK, I did get you a present, but it’s not here. It’s coming in the mail. Now I’m struggling, trying to think of something. Jeff is in my ear. “What did you get him?” I got you….a mail order bride. And now he’s screaming, running over to my side of the cubicle again. He’s cracking me up. Jeff on the side – “show him a picture of her.” Here, I printed out a picture of her. “Oh my God, I always wanted a busty blonde for a wife!” I know! She speaks German, but that’s OK. Jeff on the side – “why did you get him a mail order bride?” I thought that you’ve had so much trouble with girls lately, that it would probably never happen for you, so a mail order bride just made sense! He continues loving his present and Jeff ends the scene. Ugh. Jeff gives the feedback. “I was a little confused because I thought you forgot his birthday, but then you told him you didn’t.” Yea, he was so happy that I felt bad. “That’s OK, it worked. I liked your decisions, you just needed to tell us sooner what you got him. He was so excited, just waiting for you to tell him. You could have told him anything, and he either would have reacted big, the way he did, or maybe been sad and disappointed. Either reaction is fine.” OK, yea.

And I’m done. I finish watching the rest of the class perform with different scene partners. I notice that I am the only one who – when my scenes were over – looked defeated, like I messed up and could have done so much better. Everyone else seemed perfectly content with their scenes. I leave with a mix of emotions – disappointed, liberated, excited, accomplished, anxious. Anxious because now I have to wait and see if Jeff has decided to place me in the intro classes or skip to the basic level.

I get home and tell Mike all about it, while simultaneously telling the girls on Girl Talk. Someone writes, “When will you find out?” Should be in the next two days. I don’t feel great about it. About a minute later I check my email and see the subject: audition results. Already? Open it. “Congratulations on passing your audition for the Basic Level One class at the Groundlings School!” Whattttttttt. I’m in! Mike I got it! I tell the girls. I’m so excited! I can’t take the smile off my face. I wonder who else passed.

I’m light on my feet as I walk into work later that night. I feel good, except now I need almost $500 to take the first class. It’s all good. I’ll figure it out.

*The Beatles

6 thoughts on “I am the Walrus

  1. Awesome. A lot of really funny people have come out of Groundlings. I just finished the John Belushi biography and he used to stop in there all the time once he became famous and was out in LA making movies. He would get out there and perform every now and then.

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