Monday, July 16, 2007

What I Learned from Del Close

Fall of 1978 - I'm a senior in high school (PCHS - Home of The Redskins - it's a term of endearment, I swear!). President of the student council. Editor-in-chief of the Port Clinton High School's yearbook, Revista. I work part-time at a local radio station, WRWR-FM, most notably playing rock music in the evenings. I have a stellar 2.2 grade point average. I also do plays when I can with Playmaker's Theatre. Our school doesn't have a theater or theater company, so Playmaker's took up the charge to provide teens an opportunity to be on stage. In a very unusual move, they seldom produce teen theatre geared towards teens. (My first role on stage was in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. At 14, I was in way over my head. I didn't get any of the jokes. I had a line "she must look a bit long in the tooth, by now, I should think." I had no idea what that meant and decided to change it one show to "she must look like a prune, by now, I should think. " It got a laugh. My first experience of getting a laugh on stage. Poor Noel Coward. Clearly, all he needed was a 14-year-old jerk from Ohio to punch up his work.)

Back to fall of senior year... Pope John Paul II just took up the big, pointy hat...Jimmy Carter is president. It's the first time in politics that I was able to witness a political party (The Republicans) so ravenously going after discrediting a president. A president who was trying to use honesty as one of his platforms!...Jim Jones and his followers commit suicide in Guyana...The Walkman is introduced to a nation. It would
be another ten years before I could afford one...The Eagles "Hotel California" and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors' were Grammy winners... And I saw The Second City Touring Company live for the first time. Nancy McCormack, my friend Brett's mother, organized the field trip. A bunch of my friends from high school and at Playmaker's and I piled into a van and drove two hours to do an all-day workshop on improvisation and to see The Second City Touring Company perform that night. I was going out of my gourd with excitement... I had heard about Second City because I was a huge fan of SNL. All their strongest players had come from there.

We crowded into a tiny theater that had folding chairs for seats. We were starting a bit late because the guy that was going to lead the workshop missed the flight to Detroit. Undaunted, he hopped in a cab from Chicago. A $400 cab ride! It wasn't an act of opulence on his part. It was the only way he knew how to get there. His name was Del Close.
For those of you who may have never heard of him, Del Close is one of improv's most mythic figures. He was around in the early days of improv's development with The Compass Players in the '50's. He was in one of Second City's early companies and one of their first directors. His life reads a bit like Forest Gump. Do a search for him on imdb and you'll be amazed at some of the places he shows up, including a few episodes of Get Smart. He was obsessive about improv and theatre. More than any other illegal substance he could pump into his system, it was his biggest addiction. He was also a very dangerous man to put in front of a large group of hungry teenagers.

The very first thing he did was stand at the edge of the stage, mumble something about trust, say, "aw, fuck it," closed his eyes, locked his arms to his sides, and fell forward into the aisle. Several of us reached out to grab him. I got myself a small handful of a then skinny Del belly. We stopped him from hitting the floor by about two inches. It was the bravest thing I had ever witnessed at that time and the one improv demonstration I have never tried to emulate as a teacher. The message was clear - take risks, trust the universe will catch you. It's a message I've carried with me on stage and off.

The other big improv nugget I got that day was the power of "yes, and..." I was watching him work with one of my friends - Steve Oleksa, who had a slight resemblance to Dan Aykroyd that I hadn't noticed until Del mentioned it. Steve was playing one of Santa's helpers delivering toys to a single woman. She kept asking him what he had in his bag. She would say things like, "Do you have a dolly in there for me?" "Of course," he would say and pull an imaginary doll out of an equally imaginary sack. "Do you have a beauty shop in there for me?" Steve's logic kicked in. A beauty shop wouldn't fit in a sack nor could it be carried over his shoulder. I was with him on that. "No, little girl, I don't-" "Yes, you do!" Del interjected. Steve didn't flinch. "Why, yes, I do. It's right here." And he proceeded to pull a free-standing beauty shop out of his sack. It was brilliant and very funny and my first demonstration of what it means to "yes, and..." your scene partner.

After the workshops and before the show, we had a break. Del actually shouted out to everyone, "Does anyone want to go get high?" Um, I did. I started to walk out with him and one of the other actors from TourCo. My responsible side kicked in. I had someone else's car keys on me and needed to return them. I bailed. Good thing, too. I'm not good high. Especially around people. And I wouldn't have been as blown away by the TourCo revue that night. Up to that time in my life, it was the best thing I had ever seen on stage and funnier than SNL. I came back a few days later for the Sunday matinee and then saw the TourCo once more in Cleveland and then a few years later in Dayton.

I took what I learned in that workshop and started an
improv/sketch company in college. That college group forged some of my strongest, longest-lasting relationships. We still stay in touch and try to see one another when we can. Everyone in that group has stayed in touch with the arts on a professional level. One even became a semi-regular guest on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

After being cast in the
TourCo myself almost twenty years after that workshop, I signed up for classes at iO to tune-up my skills. I had Del for my Level 5 class. I didn't ask him if he remembered that workshop. As he got older, he seemed, to me, to have become larger, louder, more intimidating and a little smelly.

Regardless of my later experience, his mark on me is indelible.