It’s been a while since I have done anything that could be regarded as “legitimate” theater. Matter of fact, when August of this year rolls around, it will be three years since I stepped onto a stage to perform previously scripted lines with inflection and objective and everything else that was imprinted onto my brain during my two-year duration in college.
I’ve kept myself busy, of course. Performing with one comedy group while leading another comedy group while working while finding time to get back to college since I’m apparently unqualified to even sell mattresses without holding a degree in anthropology. And guitar playing. Can’t forget that.
There have been times when I’ve felt the call of the “legitimate” stage. It’s a siren song, attempting to lure me back into the sweet embrace of notables like Chekhov, Shakespeare, Miller. And like the best sirens, these notables can’t wait to tear me to shreds.
What is it that has caused me to forgo the temptation, and keep on the path of improvisational comedy?
Like all good stories, this one involves a wad of saliva.
It was the end of what had been a 3-month tour. I was in a production with three other people. For the safety of the innocents, and the safety of myself, I’ll refrain from giving the names of the people and of the production. Aside from me, there were two males and a female. Jake, the road manager, was on his second tour with the theater company. Since he was the veteran out of the four of us, he had become the de facto leader. Crystal, the female, was our ringer. She was gorgeous, a great actress, and a terrific singing voice. There was me, the plucky comic relief.
And then there was Matt.
Matt was the youngest of us all. He was 19, but he had already lived a life of wonder and amazement. He had, at different times in his life: Freestyled with some rapper that I can’t remember; Been pursued by law enforcement for 12 hours, leading up to a thrilling chase scene that culminated with a stand-off at the outlet of a sewer tunnel; Enlisted in the military and became a decorated paratrooper; And, the apex of all his accomplishments, modeled.
None of us took Matt that seriously.
Perhaps we should have. If we did, then he may not have felt the need to lash out at inopportune times. If only we had believed that he had descended gracefully into Iraq, he would not have felt the need to open the side door of the van while going 70 miles an hour on the interstate. If only we had agreed that he was framed, he would not have felt the need to beat some kid up during one of our off-days, breaking his hand in the process (This was covered up by claiming he had caught his hand in a stair railing). If only we had agreed that yes, he was the male incarnation of Heidi Klum, he would not have felt the need to make our lives much more difficult than they had to be.
Oh yes, I was looking forward to the end of this tour.
Morale was on the up-and-up. It was the wrong kind of morale, though. The kind of morale that manifests itself toward the end of any enterprise where people can’t wait to get out of it. It was a sensation similar to that last month of senior year in high school, or the remaining five minutes of a sales meeting. Our internal engines were revving, and all of us were eager to release the brake, pop the clutch, and zoom out into freedom.
I was tired. Tired of the show, tired of the traveling, and tired of seeing these people every day. Individually, they were lovely people. However, put everyone into a passenger van for 9 hours, with set pieces banging into the head of anyone who was unfortunate to sit in the back, and emotions can get a little on edge.
It was with this mix of tiredness and morale that we made our way to what was our fourth-to-last show, an elementary school. As it had been for the past three months, the show was booked toward the end of the day, a little treat for the kids and teachers. I was on the stage, getting dressed behind the constructed set (Another fun aspect of this tour: getting dressed behind the set while loud children filed into the auditorium), when I heard Jake and Matt arguing. Well, not arguing, per se, but vehemently debating. What they were vehemently debating, I didn’t know. It could’ve been anything: The show, the tour, behavior issues, whether Family Matters or Full House was the better family sitcom of the 1990s. It really didn’t matter to me. What mattered was after this show, there would be four more shows left, and then I would be home-free. I was looking forward to unemployment.
Matt appeared behind the set as I was getting on the final pieces of my costume. Matt was still dressed in his street clothes, his desire to prove himself superior to Jake taking precedent over getting ready to entertain people. In the beginning, I attempted to be empathetic. After all, I too noticed that Jake had taken a fascist-like approach to his position as road manager. As the weeks wore on, however, my empathy morphed into indifference as I came to realize that there really was no way things were going to change. Now, in this final week, I was in survival mode. I stayed mostly silent, getting the job done and making sure the audience was going away with the faux-knowledge that gee golly, things were swell amongst the cast.
Now, this being a public forum, I’m going to replace a few choice words within the following dialogue. The word that is replaced will be marked with an asterisk, so feel free to insert your favorite epithet.
Matt was grabbing his costume, hastily dressing while simultaneously talking to me. “Can you believe that clown*?”
I shrugged. With ten minutes to showtime, I was in no place to be a sense of reason. “Dude, just let it go. We got four days left, and then we’re done.”
Matt shook his head, pulling on his shirt. “Man, I can’t freakin’* believe you’re taking that clown’s* side. You’re all freaking* against me.”
I spoke up a little. Although Jake was the road manager, I was the oldest of the four of us. “Look, I know you and him have some kind of beef, but show some professionalism, man. I mean, there are kids coming in right now, and you keep talking like that, we’re all going to be in trouble with the theater.”
Matt looked over at me. It was clear he now thought I was a traitor to his cause. “Shoot* you’re all freaking* against me.”
I shook my head. By this time, Crystal had joined us. “Look, man, nobody’s against you. We got a job to do, and we’re going to do it. Then we’re going home. Just let it go.”
“Forget* that.” Matt said. That’s when he spotted Jake’s costume. It was a costume for a king character, complete with crown. Matt looked at us, then at the crown. “He’s gonna see what happens when you mess* with me,” Matt said. He picked up the crown, and spat a wad of saliva straight into the netting on the inside, right where Jake’s head would be. He looked over at us, smirked, and moved over to the other side of the stage.
Crystal and I looked at each other. It was a mix of emotions that could be found going between us. We were stunned, certainly, but there was also the feeling that we had been here before. It’s an odd feeling when a person who does something as base as spitting into another person’s clothing can be viewed as just a part of their natural state. That’s not a person I like to know.
Jake came to get his costume. He got dressed and was about to put on his crown when he looked inside and noticed the that there was something wet amongst the netting. He turned to me. “What happened to my crown?”
I was a defeated man. I just shrugged. “Matt spit in it.”
Jake’s eyes went wide. I shrugged again. “There’s a pair of scissors in the sewing bag. Cut it out, and let’s get this over with.”
Jake cut the netting out. We did the show, packed everything up, and returned home.
The next day, Matt had been fired from the tour. Jake took the time to talk to Crystal and I, see if there were any other personal conflicts that needed to be sorted out. There weren’t, fortunately.
We got a new person for the remaining four shows, and at the end of the week I celebrated my newly-found unemployment by going to an improv comedy show.
So why have I not done “legitimate” theater for a little over two years?
I don’t have to worry about someone spitting into my hat in improv.