Saturday, February 21, 2009

In which we arrange for Haute Couture

Barb, are you okay with all of this?

As long as we don't get sidetracked, it could be fun. As long as this little adventure doesn't become fulltime, doesn't replace her real acting, doesn't take time away from the ubergoal of Getting Out, as long as it's fun -- yes, let's do it.

Okay, first things first: ultimately, it's all going to fall on you to carry it off; what do you need?

Barb sees improv acting as an exercise best kept in a closed (classroom, rehearsal) environment, not as public performance in and of itself. Improv is a tool to unblock what the person would be inclined to do; as performance, she thinks it's about as interesting as watching a concert pianist play scales. She is not happy with the emphasis on improv as the entirety of the show, but sees some possibility of changing Bill's mind if we can show him something that looks like what he thinks improv is, but is better. Meanwhile, we have to at least try to deliver an apparently improvised show. Since her improv exercises consist of reacting to changing stimuli, she needs a lot of changable stimuli: lots of color, lots of things to handle and play with, lots of stuff all over the place, lots of cues where you wouldn't normally find cues.

Clutter; color; objects everywhere. Things that make noise when they're handled. Doesn't sound like a black costume in a gray set to me. We start talking about improvised teevee: my frame of reference is Ernie Kovacs and Jonathan Winters, she doesn't go back that far, let's talk about now and not twenty years ago. So who's doing improv teevee now?

Well, the big three in summer 1985 is SNL (meh), SCTV and Pee Wee Herman. SNL really doesn't count; it started out as a roughly equal partnership between the Second City actors and the National Lampoon writers, but success has gone to everybody's heads: the current crop of writers is content with cheap shots and laff lines, and the current crop of actors is content with funny voices and mugging. SCTV is a lot cleverer, almost too clever: it maintains its internal consistency at the expense of pulling off a complete show, so individual pieces of any given show are always funnier than the whole show. What's Pee Wee doing in there?

The Pee Wee Herman Show started life as an improvisatory goof on 50s local kids teevee shows by the LA comedy troupe The Groundlings, one of whom eventually finds fame n fortune as (wait for it) Elvira. It found its audience among the LA hipsters (big surprise there), morphed into a running midnight show that was eventually taped by HBO and offered up as part of its occasional comedy specials. This yielded Mr. Wee a national audience of some size, which rationalized a movie or two, which somehow convinced CBS to offer Mr. Wee a series deal -- as a real kid's teevee show.

I am convinced that when future historians t-t-t-talk about my g-g-g-g-generation, their entire commentary will be reduced to four words: What Were They Thinking? And in retrospect, what was a no doubt hip n moustacio'd CBS programming exec thinking in slotting Mr. Wee into Saturday morning kidland? But there he was, offering the strangest looking n sounding half hour broadcast outside of the Soviet Union. And from a visual standpoint, everything about Mr. Wee's environment and cast was the answer to an improviser's fervent prayers: everything moved, talked, and appeared strangely enough to steer any actor straight to terra incognita.

If we wanted to do something like with the tools available in the-then world o Lexington visual n performing arts, bon chance amigos. Everybody knew everybody else, and had known everybody else forever; it was very difficult for anybody to do anything new, because everybody knew how the other person would react. Generally speaking, nobody was coming in to Lexington with new ideas: not into a comfortable middle class marketplace where conflict was defined as the Sacred Knights of Wildcat Basketball predictably whaling the poop out of their hapless opponents (or else). This was why we were seeking escape, not settling in and accepting a vaguely comfortable fate.

But in the previous year, the ballet company had imported a modern dance troupe from Seattle for a year's residency, no doubt to bring in someone doing something different to recharge its own work. As far as said troupe's impact on the ballet's wprk went, the experiment failed miserably: whatever the merits of the troupe were, discipline and respectful cooperation weren't part of the package, so the performances flamed out publicly and spectacularly. But the troupe brought Missy n John with them as their production staff, and they were another story entirely.

Missy n John knew their craft, delivered what they promised (on time and on budget), and their stuff worked mechanically and visually. Missy was the costumer, John the all-other-production-stufferer. Being Left Coasties, they lived and breathed the Left Coasty art world, specifically the stuff coalescing as Grunge -- their stuff could never have been mistaken for Kentucky stuff. It was authentic, and from the stagecraft perspective it was well-made: it held up to the stresses of dancing in, around and on it. We could find people who could imitate this kind of stuff (we could do that ourselves if we had to), but the result would be a forgery: as long as you didn't look too close it would do. But we were going to depend on set n costume for thirteen weeks of inspiration. So if we needed something outre, then it stood to reason that we needed to go to the best people for outre we knew. Who, fortunately, had elected to pitch their tents in Lexington for another year -- maybe something having to do with the lack of year-round rain -- and see what happens. We do these things when we are Young.

So I called Missy, and after swearing her to secrecy described the project in general: late night teevee, improv, thirteen weeks, monster movies, hostess carries show, yada yada needs costume and set, modest to indifferent money at best but big honkin' credit at the end of each show (playing two ends against the middle here, boss), interested?

Missy was polite, they had lined up work with UK's theatre department that started up with the fall semester, felt that they had to impress the new bosses first n foremost, maybe someone else might be interested?

Well, someone else might be interested but you all are uniquely qualified to pull this off because you're ... well, you. Everybody else is ... not you. We really think that you're the only people with the vision we need to make the project work.

Flattery, even sincere and heartfelt, gets us somewhere. But this is a monster movie show. Anybody can put Barb in a black gown with a hoodie and call her Elvira.

Yabbut, we weren't exactly thinking Elvira. We were thinking more Pee Wee Herman.

A pause. A good costumer has to have a good sense of humor. I knew Missy was good. Her reply, as best as I remember it, went something like this:

"A Pee Wee Herman monster movie show? Bwah-ha-ha-ha!" And she's in for the costume.

It's a blank piece of paper, Missy: give us something Barb can work with and key off of. Our needs are: she's got to be mostly unrecognizable in the outfit, she's got to be able to get into it without a dresser, wardrobe and makeup can't take any more than an hour, she's got to be able to move in it, she's got to be able to play the costume, it's got to be machine washablem, it's got to hold up for at least thirteen weeks without maintenance. Other than that, go for it. Think John is interested in the set?

Well, that's John's business; and as it turned out John wasn't that interested in the set. His first assignment for UK was producing shop drawings and getting its shop ready for the year's construction; this being before CAD, shop drawings were still handmade, which takes hours; and the shop ... needed a lot of work: seems "maintenance" wasn't a high priority for his predecssor. He's not comfortable taking time away from a new paying job to take on any outside work; and he's not sure that the publicity would be career-enhancing vis-a-vis UK. But maybe he could touch up whatever we came up with.

I'll take .5 of the loaf. Besides, we've got to pull the set from stock units anyway; it will be easier to do that once we have the costume locked.

So we load the car and head east, secure in the knowledge that when we get back we'll know what Millicent looks like. Meanwhile, we've got hundreds of miles ahead of us and a lot to talk about. We've got three weeks to figure out who Millicent is.


  1. I am totally enjoying the story of Millie!

  2. It's quite interesting to see the backstory, indeed.

    For some reason, this post sparked a memory I'd forgotten for a while, which was one of the bigger laughs I got from the early shows. I think it was during the second movie... wasn't that The Sentinel? When all the undead were coming out of the gate of hell in that woman's apartment, and suddenly it cut to Millie for a second doing a cross eyed googly face. Big laffs, that was.

  3. We kinda knew from the beginning what would probably work. In our professional worlds, to this day, the point is to make choices that are "excellent" (within the appropriate terms of excellence for the project at hand) and consistent. That means we had to understand why the choices were "excellent" and consistent; and to get there we had to understand Da Rules.

    So we could break them.

    We intended to do more cut-ins than we did; and it was logistically too difficult to coordinate everything and everyone so we could do them consistently well and prep the next bit. By the time we hit our stride, we probably could have gone back to the cut-ins; but they seemed cheap laffs when the metajoke games were afoot.

  4. Although The Sentinel, now that you mention it, was a pretty vile piece of work. Throwing a Gookie in the middle of it probably summarized how Barb and I felt about that particular contribution to the totality o human knowledge.