There is the adage of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
There is a corollary to that adage that says “Failure is simply Nature’s way of pointing out you might want to try something else.”
Today’s story supports one of those statements.
This is that story.
In high school, I was a member of the Drama Club and was able to participate in our school’s productions of Childe Byron, Don’t Drink the Water, A Thurber Carnival, The Shadow Box, and The Rimers of Eldritch.
While I will modestly admit that I did fairly well treading the boards of our school’s Little Theater, there was one aspect of my time in the Drama Club that frustrated me. That aspect was theatrical competitions. Our Drama Department would be invited to this festival or that competition and I would apply, prepare, rehearse, perform, and fall flat on my ass.
Whether it is acting in an ensemble or performing a monologue, I never made it out of the first round of competitions.
Whether I was doing drama or comedy, I always seemed to fold under the pressure of performing in front of people writing things down in pencil.
Whether I was acting out someone else’s words or performing an original piece written by myself, the feedback I received was less than stellar. To me, the comments from the judges – though they used different words – all seemed to say the same thing, which was, “Bless his heart, at least he tried.”
So, after going 0-for-always in my quest for a trophy (any trophy!) at a drama festival, my last shot at any form of an accolade came in the April of my senior year when our club would be competing at the Fullerton College High School Theater Festival.
When registration opened up and our Drama teacher, Mrs. Roseman, told us all the categories we could compete in, my ears perked up when I heard that a category that was being inaugurated at this festival.
The category was Solo Improvisation. The rules were that the performer would be given a word or phrase by the judges. The performer would then have one minute to prepare and one minute to perform.
I was instantly drawn to this category because I was a huge fan of Robin Williams – a master at the improvisational arts – and because I also thought I could weasel my way out of rehearsing because how can one be expected to prepare for improv, which by its nature is ad hoc and spontaneous.
I signed up to participate in the first-ever running of the Solo Improv category.
Mrs. Roseman quickly disabused me of the notion that I could shirk my responsibility of preparing for this festival as she would pepper me with possible subjects (“The Navy”, “igloos”, “Greek gods”) and then watch me flail away. Thanks to her tutelage, preparation, and advice, I began to understand the rules of improv which include space work, character development (tough to do in 60 seconds, but not impossible), and story-telling. Improv, she taught me, was not simply riffing one-liners.
The 1986 version of the Fullerton College High School Festival took place on April 4-5. I almost did not make it to the first day of competition as I spent the night of the 3rd leaning up against a toilet being quite ill. I managed to pull myself together enough to make it to the bus early on the Friday morning of the 4th.
The Solo Improv category consisted of two rounds of performances. After that pair, scored would be tallied up and the folks with the five highest scores would advance to the final. So, all told, there were three chances to perform.
For the first day, there was only one round of competition. I arrived at the classroom designated to be the performing space for my heat of improvisational competitors. There were five of us in this grouping (as I found out later, there were about thirty overall competitors in the Solo Improv category and we all were in groups of five performing in various rooms for this first round) and only one judge.
This judge starting our heat by letting us know that he was slightly modifying the rules. Instead of simply giving us a subject to build a monologue around, he was also going to assign us two emotions. Our task was to start at one emotion and end at the other.
One could say that changing the rules was unfair, but we were improv performers and so we simply rolled with it. We did not deny the judge’s new premise, no matter how outlandish it may have seemed.
When it came my turn to perform, the judge gave me the subject of “macaroni and cheese” and assigned me the emotions of “apathy” and “anger”.
And now I had 60 seconds to prepare.
Over my time preparing with Mrs. Roseman, I had developed a ritual to help with this initial minute. I simply turned my back to the judge and put my head down. This is where and how I did my thinking. I did not move around. I did not talk out loud. I just stood there. It really did help me focus my thoughts without noticing the distractions of the other people in the room. Closing my eyes, I would construct in my head the story, character(s), and setting I wanted to convey.
The other part of my ritual came when, after the minute was up, the judge would tell me to start. I would quickly bring my head up, clap, spin around, and launch into my performance. I found this to be a neat bit of performance that snapped the judge’s (and the audience’s) attention to me.
For first round performance, I played a young child at the dinner table who has been served macaroni and cheese. I begin by being apathetic with what has been placed in front of me and refuse to eat it. As my monologue continues, I become more and more agitated over the indignity and injustice of having to stay at the table until my I eat all my food. I end my piece raging like Sam Kinison over the revenge I will undertake on my parents for forcing me to endure the horror that is mac&cheese.
What I also think set this piece apart was that when I started it (in apathy mode), I was far away from the judge. As my minute progresses and my emotional spectrum moves toward anger, I move closer and closer to the judge until I am almost on top of him spitting out my rage.
It was a gamble, but it paid off. On a scale of 1-4, with 1 being “Superior” and 4 being “Average”, I received an overall score of 1.
And that was my Day One. I spent the rest of the 4th of April watching my other friends compete in their categories.
Day Two rolled around and I made my way to my next designated classroom at Fullerton College. This time there were three judges facing the five competitors who informed us that they would be following the original rules and would only be giving us a subject.
When my number (17-020-1) was called, I stood in front of the trio and was given the subject of “Gardener”.
I turned away, put my head down, closed my eyes…
…and was coming up with nothing. Ideas were flying through my head, but I couldn’t latch on to anything solid enough to construct a 60-second vignette out of.
All hail and praise to Mrs. Roseman who gave me a bit of advice during our prep sessions. She had advised me to come up with one to three stock scenarios that I could pick off my mental shelf to help me if I became stuck…like I was now.
And that is what I did.
When one of the judges told me to start, I raised my head, clapped, and spun around and used the Stock Scenario “What Would the Judges Like”.
Instead of being a minute-long performance about being a gardener, my performance was what was going on in my head during my minute of preparation. I was talking out loud as if I was having a mental conversation with myself.
“Gardener,” I began. “What can I do with that? What would the judges like? Perhaps they would like a spoof of a TV infomercial.” And here I launched a quick ten-second rendition of a pitchman selling a useless gardening product (“It’s the Weather Rock. If it’s wet, it’s raining. If it’s moving, it’s windy. If you can’t see it, it’s foggy…or stolen”). I wondered if the judges would like to see a meeting of Gardeners Anonymous (“Hi, I’m Bob.” “Hi, Bob!” “And it’s been three months since I last mulched.”).
When jumping between my different scenes, I was jumping to other places around the performance area to keep my minute visually stimulating. Mrs. Roseman had warned me about staying in one place as that makes the performance boring. There were about 4-5 other quick-cuts and then my time was up.
Below is one of the actual judging score sheets from that round. As you can see by the comments, this judge correctly deduced that I had done this shtick before, but it worked for this judge.
Of the three judges, only one marked their score on the sheet, which was “Superior”.
I must have done well enough because when the afternoon came and the numbers of the finalists for Solo Improv were unveiled on a large bulletin board in the campus quad, my number of 17-020-1 was at the top of the list of five.
High noon for me and my quest for an accolade came at 3:00pm. I arrived at our designated classroom and now there was an audience in addition to the quarter of judges we would be performing for.
My number was called first and so my final round began.
I must pause here and give you a small bit of clarifying information. As you may have read from the scoring sheet above, there is a line that states that “Selection exceeding 1 minute shall be disqualified from round”. This was no joke. In my second round, one performer went over the prescribed sixty seconds and the judges let them know that she was disqualified. To help the performer, there was a volunteer (a Fullerton College student) who would act as timekeeper. It was their duty to hold up time cards that let the performer know they had thirty seconds left, fifteen seconds left, and then they would verbally call out, “5…4…3…2…1…TIME!” The rule was that any bit of performance past the call of “TIME!” was grounds for disqualification.
Back to the story.
I stood in front of the judges and one of them looked up at me, thought hard for a bit, and then said, “Your subject is ‘growing up’. You have one minute. Begin.”
I spun around, lowered my head, and motionlessly pondered. I do recall overhearing a voice from the audience say, “Is he alright?” and the answer came back, “That’s just his thing.”
Wow! After only a pair of performances, I already had a “thing.”
When the judge said my minute to perform was starting, I spun around to face the audience, clapped for their attention, and then began my journey from being born to dying in sixty seconds. In that minute, I had planned to capture Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man (infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, Pantalone, old age) from As You Like It. You can’t go wrong with the classics.
With each age and each character, I jump to a different part of the room, I change my stance, and I alter my voice. As I tell the story of my life, I keep a close eye on the timekeeper because I have planned a magnificent death scene in the final five seconds. I have timed my progression so that I am marching off to war when the “THIRTY SECONDS” time card is shown. When I see “FIFTEEN SECONDS” appear, I am transitioning from a responsible, fair-minded adult to a balding, befuddled middle-aged man. I am winding up for my death throes by winding down my rate of speech and movement. I continue to talk and stretch out my “old age” act waiting for the timekeeper to start her countdown.
I am in the middle of a word when she called out “TIME!”
I stand stock-still where I am and I am sure my eyes are wide as saucers. I desperately want to finish and my mouth is still open to utter the last syllable of the word that is stuck in my throat. But I know I can’t.
I am playing an old man about to die and in my heart, I know I am dead. I have not and cannot finish my scene. I alter my stance from the old man I was and change it to the “neutral” pose that traditionally ends a scene.
As I walk off the performance space, one of the judges turns around and says to the timekeeper, “For future reference, you need to provide a countdown starting from five. Thanks.”
And so my last shot ends not with a bang or a whimper, but with the call of “TIME!”
Of the four scoring sheets that I received later, I always liked the comment from this judge, “Your [sic] real funny…look into standup comedy-”
I never took Judge Wilcox up on that offer, but it is a lovely compliment.
The other four finalists do their performances and with the luxury of a five-second countdown. All are good, but one stirs controversy.
One of the finalists was given the subject of “football”. That is a topic that is broad and deep enough that you can take the performance anywhere. This person does the introduction of the starting line-up of a college all-star football game. Each player is a stereotype as there is the not-so-smart tackle (“I’m number 27” [looks down at jersey] “Oh wait, 72”), the brainy quarterback from Harvard, the tough talker from New Jersey, and a simpleton who only introduces himself as “TOM!”
If any of that routine sounds familiar, it’s because this guy was doing Bob Nelson’s “College All-Star” routine.
Once he finished, we could all overhear the judges discuss whether that performance counted as improvisation. Since he won neither first, second, or third place, I can only imagine that the judges came to the consensus that it was NOT improvisation to repeat a well-known stand-up routine.
One last tidbit before I go, the participants from my high school were all able to get together and pose for a club photo while at Fullerton College. Below is a snippet from that group photo. I am the guy at the left and top. You can tell I am a wacky improv performer because I have shades and my baseball cap is on backward. Waka! Waka!
Hey, to my right (your left), isn’t that the actress who played Cora in our school’s rendition of Rimers? Why, yes it is.
At this point in this long tale, you’re probably wondering what place I finished in after the final round in my final drama competition.
Well, in honor of my Seven Ages of Man routine that had no proper ending, this story will have no proper ending either.
That’s my story.
P.S. As to how I convinced my parents that I was well enough to compete for that first date after spending the previous night “praying to the porcelain deity”, well…that’s a story for another day.