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Let’s begin today with a few words about Del Close.

Del Close might be the most important member in the history of improvisation who is not a household name. Or maybe he is, and I’m just a bit out of touch and behind the times. When he died, he willed his skull to the Goodman Theatre on the stipulation that it (he) play Yorick in any future Goodman production of Hamlet. And he specified that he be duly credited in the program as portraying Yorick.

He was and early member of Second City and a long-time director and teacher for the company. His students and protégés included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Amy Poehler, and Gilda Radner. His manual Truth in Comedy is a classic book of “how to do improv” right up there with Viola Spolin.

I think my most favorite Del Close training game is something called the Ad Game. In the Ad Game players are given the description of an improbable new product about to go on the market – a musical toothbrush for instance. They then take on the roles of members of a hotshot ad agency taxed with designing a campaign for the product. They are given a limited amount of time, usually less than five minutes, in which to come up with, or 4 other things that I can’t remember right now (Terry, help me out – Product Name, Packaging, Perfect Spokesperson, Jingle or Commercial). The only rule of the game is: every offer (suggestion) made by a member of the team must be accepted and then built on by the other players. A classic utilization of what Viola Spolin called the “yes and….” (as opposed to the “yes but” or the just plain “no” or “denial of the offer”) “Yes and” in improvisation means yes! I hear and accept your suggestion and here is something to add onto it. The Ad Game quickly builds to a riot of cacophony, creativity, spontaneity, and almost more fun than you can stand.

My mind and attention are now going off on a slightly different thread, so bear with me while we go down this path for a bit. It’s not really a diversion and I will lead you back.
We drove to New York Sunday afternoon. Beautiful day, no one on the road. Perhaps the absent truckers were all dutiful sons and daughters spending the holiday in church with their mothers. Aside from the quiet, everything looked very normal on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Routes 81 and 78 to New York. We arrived at the apartment in Brooklyn to find a gorgeous bouquet of roses left there by our daughter Patrena. Monday was a long day at Sloan Kettering and because of Sheltering I couldn’t accompany Barbara, and was left home with the three cats who also made the journey in from the Burgh. Her labs looked great, Doctors more than pleased. Still dealing with a few side issues on G.I. and back pain but everything else is Houston A-OK.

On the road back, things still looked pretty normal. Jay, who owns our corner shop on Atlantic, had presented Barbara with flowers as well as we were leaving, and, between his aromatic contribution and Patrena’s afore mentioned one, the car was blessed with a floral magnificence, which thanks to the presences of our three cats (who shared the somewhat limited space) turned the Subaru’s backseat into an artistic installation reminiscent of a Rousseau painting.

Of course, we listened to a lot of NPR on the way, both live programming and the occasional podcast needed to keep us going through the radio blackouts of Mississippi – sorry I mean the middle of Pennsylvania. Over the course of the day we learned that baseball is likely to reopen on the 4th of July, but that Broadway will remain dark and in the care of the ghost light until labor Day, since arts and entertainment have been consigned to the last phase of the recovery. Even though we don’t do entertainment at Irondale, I assume we fall into this category, and so this new world of “how to make theatre programming when the theatres will remain closed for some time” has been occupying even a larger portion of my mind than before. The one place my brain keeps landing on is the need to reinvent rather than readjust. I come down on the side of throw out the whole curriculum rather than just continue as you as you’ve been doing except now, you’re zooming.

Theatre by nature is a three-dimensional art. If you’ve been watching the wealth of performances coming from the National in London, and of course the Schaubuhne, and were also fortunate enough to see these performances in the flesh, you know that the online versions are almost always entertaining and at times fascinating, and at worst historically significant (I’ve been wanting to see Stein’s Shakespeare’s Memory for 30 years) but in the end they are still substitutions for the real thing, kind of like watching those classic baseball games on the MLB Network.

So now let’s start with what are the available tools we have at our disposal and what do they allow us – no “encourage us”, no “demand” – to go from “I really just want everything back the way it was” to Eureka! Reinvention!?

To get there means really living in and embracing all the unknowns we keep encountering, it demands we keep researching. Maybe read When Things Fall Apart. Maybe installing the Ad Game as a part of all our company meetings and virtual lunches and happy hours. Maybe making the Ad Game a weekly feature of Irondale’s Zoom-internet-YouTube programming? Maybe… All the wisdom of the world reduced to a single word, according to an ancient parable is “maybe.”
As for Del’s skull, for a time it was on display in the Goodman lobby. I wonder if it’s still there.


Jim Niesen


Author Irondale

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