Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

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October 14th: Fourteenth Post

Meanwhile, back at Blakkat Theatre…

Our Blakkat is one proud feline, despite being a worn and somewhat tawdry fallen lady. She’s a failed Queen Street nail salon, transformed into a theatre by dint of volunteer goodwill and the cheapest of make-do accoutrements from Goodwill. She isn’t much to look at, but a second home seldom is and never needs to be. She’s been round a block or two and scrapped in more than one dark alley. She needs a flea bath and a good lick of paint. She smells. But it’s a musty energy, of industry, sweat and song, one that bears the warmth of laughter and the whiff of camaraderie, even when her players and you, her audience, have left the building.

Like a ship, a theatre is a She. Especially to those who float so many important moments of their lives there, a theatre is a proudly vibrant She, one with a back story and a storm all her own. Blakkat has heard it all and hears everything. She laps up your questions. When you’re leaving your first improv show, she knows that as curious improv virgins your second stab at things will be the more rewarding. After an incredulous, “Are you sure that wasn’t rehearsed?” you’ll ask, “Okay, then, how do they do that?” If she could speak for herself, she’d willingly answer you.

Blakkat knows improvisation is more than fun, more than art and more than artful fun.

It’s a time machine, a craft human beings have longed for since day one, or at least since the invention of clocks or the discovery of regret. And even better, for all partners in the improv triad – Blakkat, her players and you, her audience – improvised virtual reality is the cheapest, most democratic, easily accessible, non-life threatening and portable kind of time machine that we’ll ever have the pleasure to ride. It’s collective wish fulfillment.

Far beyond the scope of its limited poor-cousin predecessors — the ghost of Christmas Past, the whirly-gig of H.G. Wells, an misfit angel named Clarence Odbody, a London Police Box, A WABAC machine, a petulant DeLorean DMC-12, a Quantum Leap, a holodeck, or the standing stones of Craigh na Dun — improvisation requires no undigested bit of beef, no buttons or levers, no divine intervention, No Eye of Harmony, no short white dog, no flux capacitator, no cigar-smoking side-kick, no omnidirectional holo-diodes and no rubies in your pocket. In improv, T. S. Elliot is entirely correct: "Time present and time past// Are both perhaps present in time future." The cooperative craft of improvisation inspires its own portals in the time/space continuum. It instantly transports an unlimited number of participants into an infinite number of pasts and futures, requiring no machine but the human body and no fuel but the collective human imagination.

Consider Blakkat’s favourite improv structure, the game of Meanwhile.

By definition, it’s time travel both random and deliberate, a technological improvement over those handwritten chalkboard signs that announce scene changes in silent films, typified by the since-iconic line, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” In our Meanwhile, as her improvisers make the godlike shifts that puny mortals only hanker after in far-less-interesting temporal lives, our Blakkat, having but one life — not nine, despite what rumour may claim for her — finds herself likewise transported as both vehicle and participant. At any point, in any scene, whenever an improviser calls, “Meanwhile …” it’s the Open Sesame, the Abracadabra, the Wingardium Leviosa, that levitates improv to art. We are jointly teleported, whisked elsewhere, delivered transformed. We’re all such willing travelers, all so ready to be yanked:
“Meanwhile, back at the branch …”
“Meanwhile, wuthering the heights with Heathcliff …”
“Meanwhile, when Casey met Finnigan ... “
“Meanwhile, deep in the pampas hunting the rutting zucaca …”
“Meanwhile, in Amelia Earhart’s cockpit …”
“Meanwhile, once the homophobic bully flew over the rainbow …
“Meanwhile, between the hammer and the last spike …”
“Meanwhile, at 221B Baker Street, there’s a knock on the door …

Every call of “Meanwhile” takes us anywhere and everywhere and back again. Back to our first kiss, or Hitler’s bunker, or our father’s knee. It’s inexhaustible transit with infinite connections; it’s quite literally, “Meanwhile back at the ________.”

And because our improvised arrival is just that — a blank — and because story abhors a vacuum, we fill it. Time shifts, place shifts, action shifts and as we will it, time, place and action recommence elsewhere. In symbiotic triad Blakkat, players and audiences, invent and reinvent the world anew. We spring ahead or bounce back; we spring ahead and bounce back; we spring ahead as we are bouncing back. We can revisit a previous scene for a deepening or a do-over, because as c-owners of our own theatrical TARDIS we can reprogram and replay a moment as many times as we like. We can re-write history in the eternal present and keep rewriting it, revisit all possible pasts and futures, recompose all foreseeable and unforeseeable outcomes.

Blakkat cautions that nothing in real life ever matches that kind of unbridled power. Or that runaway glee.

She knows the edge of her empty stage as the never final frontier. It’s the galaxy’s most vulnerable and intoxicating place to stand, exposed in empty space, a spotlight blinding your eyes, with no script, no stage directions, no director, no rehearsals and no second chances. As co-explorers, as players, audience and theatre, we share that precipice. We step up, put our bodies into play. Open our mouths, hoping that our hands, our heads and our hearts eventually make meaning. We’re so alert. We’re sentient lemmings performing a trained act of faith, heeding Blakkat’s great founding voices – Del Close, Keith Johnston, Viola Spolin, Chana Halpern – all telling us that there are no short cuts or safety nets; we simply have to jump off improvisation’s cliff. It’s a leap of trust. We trust that a death defiant dive into chaos and kerfuffle lands in profundity, the odd profanity and enormous fun. So we check in with our troupe. Propelled by the urgent now of the moment, we sharpen our eyes and perk up our ears. We reach for each other’s reaching hands.

And we jump.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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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.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page