When asked if I wanted to take a physical comedy course, my gut instinct was to find an excuse to say no. I hadn’t attended a class of this sort in probably ten years and my memories of such things are not the happiest. However, starting some time in 2012 and continuing through this year I’ve been finding myself saying “Yes” a la Kander and Ebb a lot more than I used to. Finding no discernible reason why I couldn’t participate, I said yes to my buddy Zach Laks, and I’m glad I did.
The class I attended was part of Parallel Exit’s Comedy Academy, a teaching extension of the Drama Desk-nominated theatrical company. Frankly, I had no idea what to expect and was slightly apprehensive about the whole affair. However, the presence of friends in the class made it much easier for me to just show up and be in the spirit of things. I was even informed that I could just watch if I didn’t feel like participating, but I felt that I had come to be involved. This was one class out of eight in a single series they were offering through the first two weeks of April. I’m not sure how the other evenings progressed, but was told that you could attend any one or all and still manage to get a lot out of the experience. (Having taken just one course, I have to agree with this assessment).
Outside our room in Ripley-Grier, I was introduced to Parallel Exit artistic director Mark Lonergan and company member Joel Jeske, who would be running the class. Once inside, we had a relatively brief warm-up, mostly awareness exercises in which we were asked to picture our frame of mind (mine was a road and field somewhere in Oklahoma – make of that what you will) and then some eye contact and movement work, in which we had to connect with our classmates (with the exception of two, all complete strangers). Then came a sort of pep talk involving some basic principles. We were told not to think too much, that the Method need not apply, but to be clear and specific in the choices we make. We were encouraged to act on our impulses, but to be specific and direct – and to always think of what we were doing in terms of playing.
The first, and simplest, exercise involved walking in a room and making a clear action with an established but invisible prop. Zach was the first to go and decided that the prop in question was a hula hoop. We all got up one by one as the impulse hit us, and each did something different and unique with this hoop that wasn’t there. (For the record, I lit it on fire and dove through it).
The second exercise is where we started to click more as an ensemble, even though we were once again working individually. Instead of finding something to do with a prop, we were asked to build on what the person before had done, in order to create an atmosphere and give the comedy a sense of space and dimension. The first classmate to go walked into a room, found a mirror and started hacking at her hair. From this, we as a class created an entire room – a frenzied, chaotic hair salon with specific, madcap characters all involved in specific business. (I was an annoyed man reading a newspaper while waiting).
Joel then stepped things up with a partner exercise. Half of the class created a scene as a waiter and customer, the other half created a scene involving a letter containing information about one of the individuals. (I was involved in the latter). I marveled watching these scenes come out of nowhere, all quite funny. Everyone tried something different and interesting. When it was my turn, I ended up playing a cheating boyfriend who has been found out by his ridiculously attractive girlfriend. It was a great opportunity to just go with my imagination and feed off of a scene partner. In our discussions, I found that many seemed to find leading a scene easier. For me, it was the opposite. I loved reacting, and seeing what my scene partner would lob at me.
The piece de resistance came in the fourth and final exercise, involving the entire group. Together, with Joel as a sort of silent film director off in the corner, we created a neighborhood scene involving three couples. For about thirty minutes we established a nonverbal world involving forbidden romance, intrigue, murder, kooks, drunks and puppies. This last exercise didn’t directly involve me all that much; I found that the story which we built out of thin air mostly involved the others in the class, but I marveled as I observed what was coming together in front of me.
What I think I enjoyed best about this experience as a student was the atmosphere in which we played. It was relaxed and open, everyone was encouraging and supportive of one other, enough so that anyone would be comfortable in Parallel Exit classroom.
And I gotta say, there are few things better than making a complete stranger laugh.