Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

This Blog is Alive with the Sound of Mutants

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How does one wrestle the art of improvisation to paper? Improv by definition is a verbal and physical 3-D art form, born of, and alive in, the spontaneous moment. The essentially 2-D written page is flat, slow, neither verbal, physical, nor alive, and silent except in one's head. And in extra complication, in the daily construction of Kerfuffle, I'm also trying to include the interior voices of the players and the over-arcing theoretical voice of Blakkat. It's a game within a game: the troupe is playing "Talking George" on stage and their show is a scene in the larger game of "Meanwhile" that structures the novel. It's a window out and a window in; readers see and hear the show and see and hear what the improvisers are thinking as they justify their choices. To do all that without interrupting the pace and flow of the show is proving a most enjoyable challenge! Hope you enjoy this first draft of the opening of Kerfuffle's Friday show. (And, particularly if you read yesterday’s post, you’ll finally understand why there’s always more to a reference to Julie Andrews than meets the eye.)

Meanwhile, back as the curtain rises…

“Good evening, Toronto and welcome to the improvisational mayhem otherwise known as a night of Kerfuffle at the Blakkat Theatre! A special shout out to all you hearty earthquake survivors and wall protestors out there! We are Kerfuffle, because our goal is to make one and we’d like to welcome all of you to our every-Friday-night signature game. It’s the game that sounds like your landlord, it’s--” Sherman cups hand to his ear and leans into the audience — the “tell” for the troupe and all their regulars to yell, as they so obligingly do, “Talking George!”

“Excellent!” Sherm continues. “Now for those who’ve never been here before, perhaps the rest of you can tell us what this is?” This is Connie’s cue to reach down in front of Blakkat’s nose and lift the object in question over her head. The crowd chants, “Fish-bowl! Fish-bowl! Fish-bowl!”

“Absolutely! And in this fishbowl are the many collected wisdoms of one of the wisest and wittiest curmudgeons of all time. And who might that be?”

“George! George! George!”

“Correct again! And while he may be curious and while he may very well swing us into a few metaphorical jungles, our George is neither of those Georges. Ours is George Bernard Shaw. He’s a nineteenth-century dramatist and socialist wit who kindly shows up here at Blakkat every Friday night to help us create a new play on the spot. As Kerfuffle improvises from your suggestion, every so often, we will say thank you to our George, by finding a good reason to pluck one of his lines from our fishbowl and no matter what it says, for better or for worse, we must incorporate his lines into our play, or to extend the analogy, we must marry his words to ours. So, are you ready for the improvised forced-fit wedding of the week, otherwise known as Talking George?”

The audience stomps, hollers and whistles. Blakkat glows.

“Excellent! Please think of the title of an existing play. Got one? Good. Now please change it in your head anyway you like. Got it? Excellent. May I please hear from you, our most literate and intelligent audience, the title of the new play that Mr. Shaw and Kerfuffle will co-author tonight?”

Kerfuffle leans forward to hear the mixed-up gamut of screamed suggestions, some silly, some profane, some they hear at every show and several new ones they quite like, usable or not, quite possibly ones that the regulars have put some thought into ahead of time:

“Catamite on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“The Days of Whine and Rob Ford.”
“Waiting for Gorgonzola.”
“The Ass Menagerie.”
“Crazy for U-Tube!”
“Pig mail is in.”
“Arms and the Mandible.”
“Sarah Palin, Queen of Deserts.”
“A Streetcar Named Bieber.”
“Singing in the Raid.’
“Anything Blows.”
“Arsenic and Old Lays.”
“Hedwig and the Happy Eight Inches.”
“Little Shot of Horseradish”
“Fiddler on the Run.”
“The Phantom of the Urinal.”

“Thank you! Thank you.” Sherm holds up his hands. “So now I’ll ask each Kerfufflian on stage to call out the one title they heard that they liked best. If it is your suggestion, please stand. And audience, to help us choose, please cheer as loudly as you can for your favourites as you hear them.”

Cal flourishes a brush, “Joseph and the Amazing Coat of Paint.” Andy pulls a John Travolta and an over bite, “Saturday Night Beaver.” Connie turns her gaze blank and zombie walks, “The Sound of Mutants.” Nellie taps her belly and rolls her eyes, “The Importance of being Early.”

Although the clever coincidence Nellie makes of her choice gets the most laughs, that’s not the only measuring stick in Blakkat’s head. Each suggestion is met by the owning cry of its author, who stands and does a two-second wave, or in one case, a full touchdown victory dance. Each acknowledgement is quickly met by the congratulatory roar of the author’s friends and then of the audience at large. Blakkat gauges each response, knowing that behind each improviser’s carefully even smile is a brain tabulating at light speed, grading each suggestion for topicality, for how many rich ideas and connections it instantly sparks, for how “mineable” each suggestion feels right from the get go. A quick glance around the rooms confirms the usual: while Blakkat expects Saturday night’s crowd to be younger, more lefty and more edgy, this Friday night house is a little older, perhaps a little more theatre and cinema literate, perhaps even a little more into musicals. She points her tail at her choice as Sherm nods and calls the question.

Sherm yells, “I say Ker, all those in favour point and yell fuffle.” For once, all five improvised fingers agree. The audience roars.

“Thank you all. For this evening’s entertainment, for this week’s Talking George, narrated as always by our venerable guest, Mr. George Bernard Shaw, Kerfuffle proudly raises the curtain for the first and only time on the Blakkat Theatre’s production of Mr. G.B. Shaw’s new play … The Sound of Mutants.”

The choice of suggestion produces the first moment in every show that Blakkat loves, when behind the burst of applause there’s a swell of a synchronized energy so strong sometimes she swears she can hear her improvisers’ brains checking in, locking on to the suggestion and each other. In an explosion of improv arithmetic, each improviser thinks, Yes!” and immediately does the quickest possible calculation of how to factor in the conventions of musicals with the specifics of this one, of how to marry everything about Maria to mutants.

Connie thinks, “Love story. Salzburg. Mountains of Austria. The von Trapp Family singers. Nun turned governess. Cold man melted by warm woman. Captain von Trapp. Rigid father figure. Marching army of mutant children. The drills are alive with the sound of mutants …”

Nellie thinks, “Do-Re-Mutant. Doe, a dear female mutant? The power of optimism. Of motherhood and family. Escape. Edelweiss. Brown-paper packages wrapped up in stringy guts…”

Cal thinks, “War imminent. 1938. Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany. Patriotism. Performers fight nasty Natzi mutants. Mutants summoned by a boatswain’s whistle ...”

Andy thinks, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Julie Andrews. Christopher Plummer. Angela Cartwright. Most revived musical, mutants can be revived. Climb Ev’ry Mutant. The courage to escape … I am absolutely not going to get stuck singing ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen’ …”

Sherman thinks, ‘So G.B., what was Charles Xavier doing in Austria in 1938? Let’s find out.”

1 comment

"Improv arithmetic" -- that's it!

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

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