Deep End Theater: funny without trying

Domeka Parker's new improv company teaches performers to enjoy every moment and to act authentically, not just race to the next punchline.

The improv begins before the teacher even gives the go-ahead, and it seems to happen by accident. The students are standing in a circle, taking turns saying their name and when and whether they’ve tried improv before. When one student says “Never,” the teacher exclaims, “Oooh,” wagging her hips in a little happy-dance.

“Oo-oooh!” echoes the group, mimicking the hip-waggle. For the next student, they take it further: “OOOOoooo–ooh!” Eventually, each introduction is followed by a long, enthusiastic chorus of “OOOOOOOOoooo–oooooh!” and a veritable dance party. Hence, introductions take forever, but incorporate a warmup.

A beep from the kitchenette breaks the spell. “The coffee is done!” chirps the teacher. “The coffee is done!” sing her new acolytes.

Deep End ensemble members Malcolm McClinton, Talon Bigelow, and Elena Afanasiev, in “Level Up” class. Photo: Ken Bryan

Spontaneous and loose as this scene may seem, improv instructor Domeka Parker knows exactly what she’s doing. She was born and raised into theater by parents (Scott Parker and Victoria Parker-Pohl) who started some of Portland’s first comedy troupes, Savoir Affair and Waggie and Friends, and she’s has been performing since 1986, teaching since 2008, and touring internationally since 2013. And now, Parker has a theater company of her own, offering beginner and advanced improv training as well as hosting events and shows.

Deep End Theater has set up shop in the rapidly growing Buckman neighborhood, at 211 S.E. 11th Avenue near where Sandy meets 11th. (While that’s a busy intersection, it’s typically been more of a traffic fly-by than a hub of activity, so keep your eyeballs peeled for Deep End’s signature flash of aquamarine.) The theater’s open floorplan includes a small raised stage against the south wall, surrounded by a wide berth of floor space; a kitchenette; and a bench-encircled, pillow-bedecked alcove that can serve as a sort of waiting room/greenroom. Today, the class members gather on the bare floor to do their movement-based warmups, then installs folding chairs and form an “audience” in front of the stage, where they take turns performing. Like the apartment units rising all around it, this theater feels functional, bright, small, and few-frills.

Parker reveals Deep End’s more distinguishing features over the course of her lesson: They’re new (Welcome!). Their teaching staff is primarily female. They approach improv acting more from its theater angle than its comedy side, letting humor emerge gradually and naturally where it will, through character and circumstance, rather than pushing for constant jokes. Throughout her two-hour introductory lesson—which starts out goofy, then gets suspenseful, then becomes funny, and eventually also poignant—Parker promotes a philosophy of mutual support rather than one-upmanship:

Domeka Parker

“If you’re doing a scene and you start to think, ‘Somebody should do this,’ then that somebody is you!”

“If your partner hands you an idea and you think it’s sh-t, sculpt it into a beautiful sh-t castle.”

“We don’t have to try to be funny. We do the most interesting and original things when we just trust that we are enough.”

“When we hold each other up, it feels like we’re floating.”

For those of us who’ve tried improv in the past (Yeah yeah yeah, “Oooooh!”), Parker’s approach contravenes typical attitudes. Improv has more often been a) a boys’ club, domineered by a handful of dudes, and b) a race against time toward the next laugh, where performers vie to blurt out the next idea, barely caring how they’re actually acting out the last suggestion.

I remember improv being that way in school, and I wish I could say I’d never observed this dynamic since among adults—but I absolutely have. As post-millennial HR departments have glommed onto improv as “team building,” they’ve ushered in a supply of weekenders who imbue improv “sports” with all the team spirit of a company softball game—meaning they lionize a few self-assured men, marginalize any women and perceived weirdos, and cheer for everybody to swing for the fences every time they’re up. This is what I think Parker means when she describes how some improv sessions have “a few too many ‘pirates’.”

“This crap-o-la of standing around making jokes is really a very American approach to improv, and it’s sloppy; it’s loveless,” she explains—a realization she reached in part after touring to Europe.

Students in an improv workshop Parker taught in Canberra, Australia, in 2016. Photo: Ken Bryan

Indeed, as the birthplace of commedia dell’arte, Europe has a claim to stake on comedic nuance, and you might say that their way has been winning. If we deem actual clowns the bellwether of mainstream comedy taste, that case is easily made: While vaudeville-influenced American circus Barnum & Bailey closes down and sends its tumbling, mugging circus clowns packing, French-Canadian outfit Cirque du Soliel, with its commedia-trained, feminine, agile, suspense-sustaining clowns, grows by leaps and bounds. Hyper-locally, even, Deep End’s new location makes a wink to the Euro-clown tradition. It’s blocks from the just-vacating Imago Theatre—long famous for FROGZ and other works in a commedia vein. Though Parker is no clown, it’s easy to see how her travel to Europe would hone different sensibilities of humor.

Since opening in May, Parker’s lost no time scheduling workshops from her worldwide network of experts: Marissa Nielsen-Pincus from Third Rail NY has already taught a workshop in immersive theater, Dave Morris from Victoria B.C has taught story creation, The International Improv Network founder Bill Binder has taught a technique called Left Brain Improvisation. And this summer, Deep End looks forward to hosting a workshop by Jason Geary from Australia.

Bossy dudes have typically flocked to improv like drunk amateurs to karaoke, but such associations can yet be broken. Just as Portland has elevated karaoke to an art form, catering to serious singers, a growing movement of improv practitioners have made space for a wider range of humor styles including the feminine, the slow burn, and the un-self-centered. Curious Comedy has been a frontrunner, The Siren Theater exerts a growing presence, and now Deep End triangulates these spots (in Northeast and Northwest Portland, respectively) by putting out a shingle in shallow Southeast. Suffice to say Portland’s improv landscape is changing. Deepening, even.

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This weekend (June 2-3), Deep End presents OPEN SHUT THEM, a wholly improvised play in the style of the classic British farce.

The company’s next series of improv classes begins the week of June 26, with an introductory free workshop on June 11 from 3-5pm. For more info, visit deependtheater.com

 

 

 

 

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