Tuesday, July 17, 2007
What I Learned from Martin de Maat
Fall of 1991 - I moved to Chicago from Cincinnati in the fall of 1989 (Things seem to happen to me the most in the fall)...After unhappily working as a stand-up for years, I decided to wean myself off the road and settle somehow into Chicago...I took a job waiting on tables at an Italian eatery called Tucci Benuch. I had never eaten there before. I'm not even sure how I ended up applying there. It's on the fifth floor of the Bloomingdale's Mall at 900 North Michigan. Not exactly one of my hang-outs.
Tucci turned out to be a place where many of Chicago's improv actors worked... A guy named Ben Zook, who I had seen at The Annoyance in The Real Live Brady Bunch worked there and recommended classes at Second City...Around the same time, I waited on a table where one of the guests was going to audition soon to take classes at Second City -at that time, there was no beginning level. You had to audition to get into the conservatory - . Her name was Meagan McCarthy. There were two hosts there, Bob Wood and Jon Glaser, who I found out after I auditioned had also auditioned. So, I called up and got a slot.
While I was in the lobby at Second City, I ran into Lori McClain, someone I barely knew from college. She was there to audition, too. The whole audition, as I recall, was just to get up and improvise a three-person scene based on a suggested scenario. I don't remember who my scene partners were, but I do recall we were "three college students preparing for a party." After my audition, as I was leaving, I looked up on stage and saw Don Hall auditioning. I think he was playing a guy in a department store with his wife or girlfriend. Boy, he sucked. What a spaz! He was hyperactive and negating everyone all over the place. I thought, "Sheesh, thank God that guy won't get in."
A week later, I got a letter that said I was accepted. I think a week after that, I went to orientation and then my first class. Back then, the training center didn't exist as we know it today. You either had class on the mainstage, the etc stage or in a tiny third floor classroom that has since been converted to office space. Martin de Maat, the training center's artistic director, led the orientation and was our Level One instructor. I was relieved. I remember during the orientation thinking he was a nurturing fellow and would be good for the soul. There aren't too many people I think that about. Our class had about a dozen people in it, including Lori McClain, Jon Glaser and that Don Hall guy (How the hell did he get in?). Bob Wood and Meagan McCarthy ended up in another class. This was the early roots of WNEP. Also in our class were Jeff Hoover and Alida Vitas.
We were fortunate to have Martin for two levels. Unlike Del, Marty wasn't Forest Gumping his way through life. What was totally brilliant about Marty is that he was so firmly in his element teaching improvisation. He would dabble in other areas, but it was like Michael Jordan playing baseball. He was at his best in front of a group teaching improv. He not only embodied a love for the craft, but a love for his students, too. He had a way of making you glad to be you and to be doing what you were doing in class. He was amazing. As a child, he had taken classes from Viola Spolin and I don't think he ever lost that child-like wonder when it came to improvisation.
I don't recall which level it was where I learned this most valuable lesson from Marty. I do know it was up in that tiny room on the third floor. I was doing a scene that I think Don, Hoover and Lori or Alida were also in. We were decorating a Christmas tree. Somehow, the scene turned to everyone making fun of me for something. I was being picked on and, man, did it bring up a lot of bad memories from childhood. I was struggling on how best to respond in the scene and Marty's side-coaching was "Tell the truth. Tell them how you feel." I said something like, "I feel hurt. You guys are hurting my feelings." I could see my scene partner's faces turn sober and apologetic while still staying in character. That moment turned the scene and gave us a strong direction forward. The lesson I learned is to tell the truth in the moment. It's vulnerable, even in the context of a scene, but it's worth it. It's usually when the best moments take place, in scenes and in life.
There's another lesson I learned from him, too. I was doing a scene about three guys fishing. Sergi Bosch was one of the other guys. The third guy belched and Sergi's character was in awe, remarking it was "like thunder." I got up and went to the wall and urinated. It was completely in character, but, in my head, I was like, "What the hell am I doing? This is so wrong. I suck." The rest of the scene fell flat and puttered to a slow death. Marty asked me about what was going on in my head when I got up. I told him and he rightly pegged my inner thoughts as the moment the scene started to slide down the tubes. The lesson I learned was to be true to my character and the reality of the scene. The scene is likely to go however I think it is going, especially if I think it's bombing. Best to focus on the craft and not on my ego.
I stayed in touch with Marty after we graduated. He hired me to teach as soon as I got hired as an understudy for the touring company. I am no where near the teacher Marty was, but if I'm ever in trouble in class, struggling with getting across concepts to students, it's my experience with him that helps me get out of it. It usually involves throwing heaps of love and respect at them, and remembering that I could have been doing that all along.