Andrea, James, Nate, and I stood in a circle in the green room. We closed our eyes and took one breath together.
“What’s one intention you have for this set?” I asked. We took turns sharing. My intention was to be without memory.
We took three more breaths together. Told a collaborative story to practice “yes, and.” Took a lap around the circle to practice declaration and response. Next we did crazy eights. Counted down from eight together and shook our hands and feet. Patted each other on the back as we said “I’ve got your back.” The same warm-up routine we’ve been doing for almost seven years.
The name of our group was called over the microphone. Alone in a Church. Because that’s how we started. Practicing improv in the basement of a church.
A supportive audience howled and cheered as we took the stage.
We asked for a location. Somebody in the audience shouted “dragon bridge!”
In the opening scene, I prepared to cross a bridge. With a dragon on it. Because, you know, dragon bridge. I asked my scene partner to go with me. They wouldn’t. I told them I was too weak to go alone. Atrophied was the word I used. And the set went from there.
It became established that I was the chosen one. The one to defeat the dragon and save the tribe. But I was weak. And I was leaving. And the others in the village wanted me to stay. I groaned and laughed as I stood off stage. Our final set had become an allegory for me leaving.
The others were upset. And sad. And lost. And suddenly I found myself on stage giving another monologue. I give lots of monologues in improv. But this monologue was different. It was about how we were a tribe that builds bridges. We are a people that are always moving forward, not clinging to the past. Safe in the knowledge that what we built mattered and will continue to matter. We always build new things. We follow the pathways that emerge. My scene partner told me I was becoming strong as I spoke. No longer atrophied. Unatrophied was the word I used. The allegory began to break down. I was talking about improv. And all of this was about Happy Valley Improv.
I killed the dragon. Turned out it was animatronic. Turned out we had created it ourselves. I looked to the tech booth. Made it clear I didn’t want what I was going to do next to be the end of the set.
I presented the head of the dead animatronic dragon to the village. And then I asked them to cross the bridge with me. The others agreed and followed me across the dragon bridge. And I turned into energy as I led us through the audience. Across the bridge. And then we returned to the same place. But it was a different place now. A riff on what it had been. As is the way with everything. My final line was “this was never about me.”
And then I stepped off stage. And then I was gone.
Folks, this was one of the strangest improv sets I’ve ever been a part of. Equal parts ridiculous and profound. Which is, in my opinion, what improv ought to be.
Andrea began crying before the set started. And then James was crying. And then Nate was crying. And then I was crying. Which was sad. But also hysterical. Because we were about to do improv theatre.
Our final performance came at the end of Happy Valley Improv’s inaugural XL improv festival. So there were minor celebrities and improvisers from around the country in that packed audience. And they watched us weep together before we started.
We got a standing ovation after it was over. Later, people came up to me with tears in their eyes. Yes, our company members. But strangers too. Lots of hugs. My sense is our final performance of Alone in a Church had been so ridiculous that it had also been sincere. And that sincere ridiculousness brought a strange group of people together for a moment. What more could you want from improv?
I could probably spend an essay making sense of our final performance of Alone in a Church. My interpretation. But that’s not what you do with improv. You make something with others. That something connects you with others. It changes you. Changes them. And then it’s gone and you move into the next something. That’s improv. That’s also what I’ve been doing for the last seven years with Happy Valley Improv. Been doing it a lot longer, too. I’ve been involved with improv for nearly 20 years now.
And now I’ll go improvise in a new place that is a riff off of an old place.
I love Andrea, James, Nate. And I know they love me. And that love is an idiosyncratic love born from the time we’ve spent laughing together. Working together. Improvising together. Being irritated with each other. Being together. Should I write the word together again? Because that is probably the thing that matters most. And I don’t need anything more from them than what they gave as we crossed the dragon bridge. And they don’t need anything more from me.
And that, my friend, is that.