My month in ‘Clubland’: Inside A/A’s Pilot Season

Firsthand findings on the art of acting, improv and serial theater, friend-drama and scene nostalgia

Greg Bigoni, Bri Pruett, Ian Goodrich, Vivien Lyon, Leo Daedalus, Noelle Eaton, and A. Adams

Greg Bigoni, Bri Pruett, Ian Goodrich, Vivien Lyon, Leo Daedalus, Noelle Eaton, and A. Adams

I’m the roommate. I’m polyamorous and excited about everything. I play a lot of musical instruments, I want the main characters to be happy, and at any given time I may be stoned.

These ideas, in lieu of lines, informed my character in Clubland, the live, semi-improvised “pilot episode” that I recently acted in at Action/Adventure Theatre. “Um, what?” you may say. Don’t worry; I’ll explain all, including:

  • My foray into Portland’s exploding serial theater scene
  • How the 2012 closure of music venue The Woods is still causing drama, and
  • How devised improv differs from, say, Shakespeare.

Shall we call it “TV-ater?”

“We thought we were doing something so unique,” says Vivien Lyon, director of Clubland, remembering Action/Adventure’s  Fall of the House. She helped devise the series that fused TV-style “episode” structure with live theater back in 2007. “Turns out, theaters all over the country were doing the same thing.” Be that as it may, even several years in, the serial theater format’s still comparatively rare in Portland—and Action/Adventure seems to have cornered the market. When it’s not running one consistent, scripted play for a whole month, A/A routinely creates semi-improvised “series,” rolling out a new “episode” each week for four to six weeks. Sidekicks, the company’s four-week superhero comedy, just closed. Fall of the Band ended last fall after two popular seasons, six episodes apiece. And long before that, the company first cut its teeth on Fall of the House, a 6-season epic.

Over time, A/A refined loosey-goosey exploration of a “new” form into a foolproof routine, adapting the most helpful aspects of serial TV to the live environment. Like TV shows, A/A’s episodes begin by recapping the last week. Lined up in a row, actors blurt out a hyper-condensed version of their prior dialogue, so new viewers can jump in and catch up immediately. Further spoofing TV, the company screens a sitcom-style “intro,” a pre-filmed montage set to cheesy theme music that shows each performer in action and runs corresponding credits. After that, it’s time for a play that, just like a TV show, completes a micro-plot-arc within an hour, but cliffhangs some aspect of a macro-plot for next time. A/A has blended the TV and theater media into such a fine frappé, you could call it “TV-ater.”

Action/Adventure's event picture for Pilot Season not-so-subtly suggests that old-fashioned TV is dead.

Action/Adventure’s event picture for Pilot Season not-so-subtly suggests that old-fashioned TV is dead.

This might be an idea that’s found its time and place. The antipathy toward “mainstream” TV runs deep here—just ask newcomers who try to chat up locals about network shows, only to get the Portlandia-satirized blank stare. ‘Round here, we either don’t watch TV, or don’t prefer to admit it. TV opposes classic values of free thinking and DIY, and the battle cry of “Kill your TV” is a pet cliché. Free-box season seems to litter TV carcasses on every corner, rolled over sideways, sinking into the yard-weeds. There’s disdain and mistrust for the idiot box. There’s an ongoing search for alternatives. Cross that with a post-peak local music scene, a growing comedy contingent, and the rise of film and video industries right here in town that have begun—and, ahem, if they’re wise, will continue—sourcing more writing and acting talent locally. It’s the perfect climate for TV-ater to put down grassroots. Choosing pop theater over TV is the cultural equivalent of shopping at the farmers’ market instead of the supermarket: you’re rejecting processed, mass-produced fare and giving your money to local artisans who grow their stuff communally and organically.

Back into The Woods…

A random text message from Vivien: “Weird question—any desire to get back into acting?”

Funny she should ask, because I had been feeling that urge. One, I find it fun, but two, I’ve been reviewing theater for years now without accounting for my skill set. I know I don’t have to be the best actor to be a good assessor…but I think it’s good to maintain some familiarity with the form, to cultivate some empathy for the people who create theater every day. Otherwise, my readers could taunt, “Those who can’t do, review!”…and what could I say?

Vivien’s a friend I met back when she co-owned the short-lived but legendary Sellwood bar and venue The Woods. Sometimes I entertained there. Sometimes I covered shows for Portland Monthly. Occasionally, I covered their door.

As a venue, the former funeral home was loved and legendary, luring music gods like Sean Lennon and Robyn Hitchcock and incubating unique and popular lounge acts: Baby Ketten Karaoke, DJ Cooky’s In The Cooky Jar, Bingo and Bourbon with Brian Perez, and (ahem) Dino Tarot. But among owners and workers, there were often murmurs of disagreement and ripples of drama. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, but Vivien gave it a lot.  In January 2012, just two years after The Woods opened, it suddenly closed due to landlord and co-owner schism. The line to get in on closing night circled the block.

Surely if The Woods had lived longer, some of its mystique would’ve dissipated. Heck, I remember when the Doug Fir—nonsmoking, impeccably-decorated—raised the standard, and later when that heat moved to Mississippi Studios, where the “Razing Mississippi” campaign gave patrons the thrill of an Amish barn-raising. Those phases passed, each venue eventually slipping into its place on a larger list. But The Woods—too true to its funereal roots—died famous, beautiful and young. Some of its patrons are still in mourning.

Vivien’s gone on to work for various venues. She’s put two pregnancies under her belt. Now she figures she’s finally got perspective, and it’s time to talk about The Woods—laugh about it, even. What better forum than a new Fall of the House-style series? She began to conceive Clubland, which (borrowing MTV phrasing) is “the story of what happens when friends go into business with each other, stop being polite and start getting real.”

Pilot Season: Not just for network execs

Meanwhile…A/A’s serials have already seen a lot of success and built a fair bit of momentum, so they know they want to do a new one in 2015. But what theme should they tackle next? Which of the company’s many available associates and players should be in the show? What sort of story will appeal to next season’s patrons—er—viewers? To find out, the A/A decided to borrow one more trick from television: “Pilot Season.”

A TV pilot episode is the premiere show for a potential series that otherwise has yet to be made. It’s what aspiring show creators “pitch” to TV networks and producers to show them how good a whole show of the same style would be. A good pilot episode introduces series characters (hopefully but not always with the actors who will play them), establishes dramatic tension and/or demonstrates comedic chops, and shows off the best artistic assets the series will offer, from novel camera work to a cool soundtrack. It’s an audition to be bankrolled and broadcast. If a pilot wows a studio and wins a bid, it’s on! If not…it and the subsequent series will never see the light of the small screen.

For the month of April, while “airing” Sidekicks, Action/Adventure lent its later-night time slot to four live “pilots,” with the same goal as a TV pilot season: to survey possible shows, and select one for production. Either Nick Fenster’s Mars One, Devon Wade Granmo’s Do The D.A.N.C.E., Greta Pauley West and Gregory Heaton’s Outlaw’s Embrace, or Vivien Lyon’s Clubland will become a full series next season, as determined by an audience vote that closed last Sunday. The competition was exceptionally friendly, since all four devisors were A/A insiders. Actors watched and complimented each others’ shows, and some even hedged their bets by appearing in more than one pilot. The winner won’t be announced until A/A fundraiser Inspired By later this month. (It’s no coincidence that you’re reading this after voting has closed; I’m here to analyze, not advertise, Clubland and its co-pilots.)

What’s a little drama between friends?

Besides me, the rest of the Clubland cast were more inside choices: actor-about-town Greg Bigoni; Ian Goodrich, dramaturg of Badass Theatre and an alumnus from Fall of the House; Noelle Eaton, an A/A company member and Sidekicks actor; Leo Daedalus, host of The Late Now; and Bri Pruett, vital member of A/A and rising standup comic.

In initial meetings, Vivien told us stories about her time at The Woods: who did and said what, who was in love with whom, what people expected from each other and how they reacted when they didn’t get it. But it’s nerve-wracking work to broaden your real friends’ tendencies into stage-worthy caricature, or to simplify real-life events into funny theatrics. You will distort the facts. You may make someone look bad. The semi-biographical process quickly becomes a tug-of-war between authenticity and discretion, between creative nonfiction and tabloid salacity. The safest bet is to humiliate yourself first, then let the rest of the blame fall where it may.

When she chose Bri to play “Veronica”—her representative and the main character in the show—Vivien coached Bri in her own real-life shortcomings during the Woods fiasco: Veronica was stagnating in her career and desperate for social and romantic approval. She was secretly in love with her roommate Robbie (Leo) but trying to play it cool. She was mooching creature comforts off her new boyfriend Troy (Greg) while pining over Robbie. She overestimated her own business savvy as she explored the possibility of opening a venue. She also secretly resented her roommate’s sexy bandmate Alison (Noelle) and openly disdained her eagerest, richest venue investor Chaz (Ian). She confided in her roommate Marjorie (me).

A playwright writes, a devisor advises

“You wouldn’t say that,” Vivien would blurt during early practices, speaking from the inarguable authority of having lived the original scenarios. As our two weeks of rehearsal progressed, we got better attuned and she got more flexible. The story started to separate from its source and communicate on its own as real-life events were condensed and bent to accommodate the limitations of the stage, and the story’s characters were exaggerated to ratchet up the humor. Soon enough, we stopped worrying about what we “would say,” and fully embraced our character types: Marjorie, a well-meaning flake; Veronica, a lovable but conflicted heroine; Robbie, an aloof but charming egotist; Chaz, a wheeling-dealing blowhard; Troy, a goodhearted, longsuffering underdog; Alison, an impatient  perfectionist.

It seems like there are two main ways to rehearse a devised show. One is as a means to an end, a way to initially brainstorm and collaborate with the intention of eventually solidifying an original script. (Ashley Hollingshead’s Independent Women, co-written by its cast, seemed to develop this way.) In the other approach, improvisation never ends, and the dialogue’s quite different every performance. According to Vivien, Fall of the House was very mutable, following the second model—but ever since, A/A has locked more of its dialogue down, resulting in faster, smoother, but overall less spontaneous shows. Vivien and Bri (whom she appointed assistant director) were keen to revive the FOTH form in Clubland, so we warmed up with tons of improv exercises and continued to throw each other curveballs during each practice. Paradoxically, we practiced the art of spontaneity so that we could perform it better.

Think fast! Lie hard! (…and secretly scheme.) Striving to outsmart improv

“Leo! Give me seven things about sports!” Bri might exclaim in a warmup exercise called “Seven Things.”

“Uh…balls. Field. Football. Baseball. Halfitme…” Leo could list.

We played “Seven Things” a lot, as well as “Sound and Motion,” where one person makes a noise and a gesture, and the next person mirrors it. There were other games too, but I don’t remember; the whole point was to get into the moment. Guess what? People who improvise all the time are great liars. The first time Greg and Bri tried a scene, it was resplendent with little details that they’d pulled out of thin air. “You know when we went to the movies,” he began. “Yeah, and I forgot to bring you the purse candy that you like,” she replied, “the Good ‘n’ Plenties.” Hang on…these two have never gone to a movie, let alone shared “purse candy.” Let alone of a particular brand. Liars!

Improv’s a special skill, to be sure, and not my strongest. I often found myself either pausing too long to self-edit, or saying something that immediately embarrassed me. Eventually, I had to admit to myself that I’m more of a planner than an improviser, and start secretly planning wherever possible. Marjorie told Veronica new metaphors every night, so I compiled myself a little bank: “Robbie is like your spirit animal. Robbie is like your white whale. You’re like Ms. Pacman and Robbie’s like cherries.” I changed my lines each show, but only between talking points I’d scripted beforehand.

This process of compensating for my improv shortcomings reminded me of the time I cheated at educational testing designed to determine whether I was a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner. Whether shown, told, or asked to feel a series of shapes, I’d done quite well at memorizing them. “You learn in all three ways!” declared the test, but I knew better. I’d “cheated,” quickly translating every stimulus into words. I was an all-auditory learner…but I’d adapted the other learning processes to the one that worked for me. I think a similar thing happens in improv. Not all participants are the quick-draw fibbers they’re supposed to be. Some of us secretly prepare in various ways for a spontaneous-seeming outcome. We memorize a short list of non sequiturs, or we steal what the last person said and vary it slightly…there are ways, cagey ways, to pretend you think faster than you do.

In a fast-paced play with rapidly changing scenes, some things cannot be winged (wung?). We had to install and remove a bed in a one-minute set change. I had to fly a “Two Weeks Later” sign, denoting the passage of time between events. Certain key points had to be mentioned in conversation, in order to maintain the plot. These fixed elements were further temptation to plan every word, but, to varying degrees, each of us resisted. We completely lost the plot only once…and we quickly retrieved it in the next scene.

Instant Love: Just add actors!

A month or so ago, an internet video of “strangers kissing” went viral. Everyone seemed to adore it until they realized that the social experiment doubled  as an extremely subtle ad for clothing. “Those ‘strangers’ aren’t people!” cried the indignant internet, “they’re actors!” I find the antipathy toward actors—as well as the denial that all human acts require some acting—somewhat surprising. The general public is terrified of being conned by false love, and hence people are often creeped out at how actors can don and doff its mannerisms like a costume. But actors’ primary task is not to fool you, Silly Rabbit; it’s to fool themselves.

I thought of “strangers kissing” as I learned that the Clubland pilot’s closing scene would depict a hung-over household with everyone coupled up. The charming Robbie had seduced his aloof bandmate Alison with their mutual beautiful music and a sultry kiss. The sensitive Troy had won over the warmhearted but slightly selfish Veronica with his humor and humility. Okay, we could see it…. But for some reason, to serve the greater narrative, hippie cheerleader Marjorie was also fated to hook up…with arrogant hothead Chaz. It seemed unlikely. My castmate Ian and I were both a little confused. His character had been sneering at mine all this time. How were we gonna work this?  “Look into each others’ eyes,” coaxed Vivien, “Studies show that’s what does it…” Well. Whaddaya know? Before long, my pretend paramour and I had worked up a flirtation, with believable little sidelong glances and affectionate touches. Just like those jerks from that sly commercial, we made instant love out of nothing.

Are actors the crazy ones for their quick acceleration from zero to romance with strangers, or are laypeople crazier for being so closed-off and cold? To me, it seems that an undercurrent of agape enables the appearance of eros. In order for actors to insta-love just anybody, they kind of have to suspend themselves in a state of loving everybody, all the time—or at least loving all other actors. Spend a second pondering how hard it is to love everyone, especially various coworkers you’ve had…and you’ll probably better appreciate the emotional labor of actors. I know I do.

Theater series for any old attention span

A little study we’ve been passing around recently at ArtsWatch confirms what we already often see: that theater audiences are not old or young—they’re old and young (and less in the middle). 60-pluses and 20-ishes simply turn out for more theater these days than in-betweeners. Accordingly, Portland has serial shows to serve both ends of the attention-span spectrum: Third Rail plays the long game, inching its way through Richard Nelson’s Apple Family series and Martin McDonaugh’s Leelane Trilogy over several seasons, giving audiences an experience that approximates reading a novel or watching a documentary series. These shows weigh heavily on family dynamics, with their ensuing small tragedies and compromises, and are best appreciated by people who’ve lived a little longer. On the other side, Post5 Theatre produces Spectravagasm—a fast-paced, irreverent sketch romp—in periodic installments, and Action/Adventure approximates the instant gratification of a Netflix binge-watch or a BBC miniseries by burning through several energetic shows in just a few weeks.

To be continued…?

To be frank, Devon Granmo’s Sidekicks tried my patience by ending inconclusively. After killing off so many superheroes and repeatedly raising the stakes, it seemed rude to end on a cliffhanger rather than tie a bow around the story. Those who had invested four weekends watching still had to go away wondering what would happen…and they’ll only ever find out if the series resumes next season. That said, Sidekicks was all about defying audience expectations, and this unsatisfying ending was just the last of many surprises.

Of course, Clubland would have the opposite problem. More like Titanic, we’d already know how it ends. This made our pilot episode about how the venue started a little painful. Our characters were optimistic, but of course our audience could see the end from the beginning.

Back at Action/Adventure, the only suspense now is waiting to see whether Clubland or another show will be voted onstage for 2015. Will my hippie alter-ego tread the boards some more, or will I sink back into my reviewer’s chair to watch one of the other three series (about colonizing Mars, learning to hiphop dance, or Stockholm syndrome)? Either way, it seems like this TV-ater craze is here to stay.

_________

A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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