We were late for Flanagan's Wake.
"Elle, does it matter? He's already dead."
"But you told me it was dinner theater, Rox. What if all the food's gone when we get there?" I countered, speeding across the bridge. "God, it's a gloomy day. Looks like rain."
When the sky chose to open up and dump on us, Rox asked, "When's the dry season?"
"It's Minnesota. The sky is always pissing something on you. Good day for a wake."
As always, the play was Rox's choice and I had no idea what I was going to see. When I asked her what the play was about, she tossed off a breezy, "It's awww.bravenewworkshop.com Brave New Workshop Production. Improv dinner theater." So she didn't know either.
As we rushed into the empty theater lobby, fifteen minutes late, we were soon to discover that the great thing about an audience-interactive improv show is that it doesn't matter if you're tardy. We were greeted by a lovely lass who said we were just in time for dinner. She threw open a set of double doors and the smell of cabbage assaulted our noses. "Welcome to O'Doul's Pub," she said and led us to our table beside carved wooden bar.
"Elle? What are we supposed to do?" Rox asked, scrutinizing the pandemonium of pub activity, which filled the room with brogue, Guinness, and grateful hosts. "Did it start yet? Is this part of it? Where are we?"
The Mayor (Shawn Cassidy) and owner of the pub came to her rescue. "Why, you're in Grapplin, Ireland," he said, shaking our hands. It's so nice of our St. Paul cousins to come all the way across the water for poor Flanagan's wake. Now, there's food -- "
Nobody needed to tell me twice. I grabbed a plate and peered at the food through the sneeze guard: Irish beef stew, corned beef, cabbage, boiled and buttered red potatoes, Irish brown bread and lemon bars. Not the best vegetarian fare but the carnivorous Rox said it was all fabulous -- like Shabbat dinner but dressed up differently.
In between the eating and the drinking (the pub had Guinness on tap, hard alcohol, and soft drinks) the cast members schmoozed with us, always remaining in character. Sort of. For instance, when we asked for a press kit, without missing a beat, Mickey Finn (Dan Kronzer), in a thick Irish accent said, "My dear sister Fiona (Kristine Kvanli) left them in Flanagan's casket. She's grieving, you know, and not all together in her right mind. We put Flanagan in on top of them, so we can't get to them just now."
Rox: Elle, this is a pretty long intro for you. Is it my turn to talk now? Weren't we just saying how friends take turns?
Elle: Get to the point Rox. Don't make me edit you.
Rox: You didn't tell them what the play was about, how seven people gather together to mourn the loss of their dear friend Flanagan-
Elle: The word "wake" isn't a clue? Though I did leave out the part where audience members help "recall" the details of Flanagan's life and death.
Rox: Yeah, like when that adorable Mickey Finn (Dan Kronzer), he's my designated cast heart-throb, by the way, talked about how we were all here to share stories about Flanagan. He said, "I don't have to remind you how he died. You tell me," and an audience member shouted out, "He had a heart attack in bed."
On The Improv:
Rox: I just want to say how cool it was that it was created to feel like Ireland, and that inherent in the structure of the play we were automatically granted permission to be a part of that world. It was safe to say whatever we wanted without being concerned about the real world. Imagine how it would be if you framed every real life experience like that. How much fun it would be if you went out to eat at an Italian restaurant and pretended you were Italian-
Elle: How old are you? Although life as improv is an interesting idea. But what about the play, Rox?
Rox: How can you judge if improv is good or bad?
Elle: I can. When the audience was asked how Flanagan died, and the ever-so-boring "heart attack in bed" was blurted out, the cast managed to create funny stories around it, though I wasn't wild about the story Kathleen (Rachael Brogan) improvised about Flanagan's death. It seemed to take her a long time to get to the punch line. And I found her voice a little annoying.
Rox: This is the yenta conversation from "Fiddler on the Roof". She was supposed to be annoying. I'm sure in real life she's very nice.
Elle: We're not talking about real life. We're talking about the play.
Rox: Is it life or is it improv? It's both. Because we never have a script in life. When the phone rings, there's no script in front of us.
Elle: Yes there is. We say "hello." Just like when someone asks how we're doing and we say "fine," whether we are or not.
Rox: No. I'm talking about when you're in the moment, totally engaged with someone; you have no script. When you're walking down the golden shores of that Tahitian beach and you meet the man of your dreams. He asks you what your hopes and dreams are and you launch into a lovely soliloquy about peace, love, and-
Elle: How often does that happen? And what does this have to do with the play?
Rox: The point is, we're improvising all the time. Sometimes it's natural and sometimes it's forced.
Elle: Like, I found your heartthrob to be very clever and quick-witted. Even when an audience member spit out some dumb line, he was always able to spin a witty narrative, song or poem around it.
On Being a Good Audience:
Rox: Personally I like to go to the theater and check out. I don't like to be on my toes. I don't want to have to tell someone what the autopsy showed, because I'm "on" all the time.
Elle: Then you should have been good at calling out suggestions. Hey, even I managed to come up with a song title.
Rox: "My Disease"? What kind of song is that? But I couldn't think of anything but "On the Radio", by Donna Summer. They wanted a contemporary song.
Elle: Well, that one guy in the audience said "Blue Suede Shoes", which is why when they asked for another song, I felt compelled to think of a title that might be a little more fun for them to work with.
Rox: Who are you kidding, Elle? It was the only thing that came into your head.
Elle: Oh. And I think it might actually be called "Your Disease".
Rox: I really admire these guys. Not only are they funny, but they make sense-more sense than I make when I'm just being normal. Part of what's so cool is they believe 100% in what they're doing. If Flanagan had OD'd on Nutrasweet they'd convince us, because they are committed to telling that story, however absurd. They're like the salesmen of the entertainment industry.
Elle: But why didn't you make any suggestions? You couldn't have done worse than when Mickey Finn said, "Life is like...?" and a woman said "a bowl of cherries." See, another "scripted answer."
Rox: It all goes back to the second grade.
Elle: When you called your teacher "Grandma?"
Rox: No, I mean the time when Miss Gibbs asked us where on our bodies could our pulse be felt, and I said you could feel your pulse in your mouth.
Elle: Now I get it. I think others in the audience had the same fear. One woman couldn't come up with one word. "Noun, sweetheart. Person, place or thing," smart Alec Mickey said.
On Being a Good Cast Member
Elle: You're so hung up on Mickey you have nothing to say about anyone else. The whole cast was great.
Rox: Father Damon (Brian Aylmer) cracked me up.
Elle: I loved his story about the lost book of the bible: The Book of Kevin.
Rox: Elle, did he make that up?
Elle: Yes, Rox.
Rox: Then the story about Joseph kicking Jesus out of the house wasn't true either?
On the Best Part:
Rox: Didn't you say the best part was the sense of community and how cool it was to hang out and play Irish?
Elle: I never said that, Rox.
Rox: Did I say that?
Elle: Notice how it sounds like something YOU would say and NOT something I would say? My favorite part was how they made up rhyming songs on the spot ending in the song title the audience called out. Sometimes I thought I could see the gears grinding in their heads, other times it looked effortless. I wonder if it's something you can practice and get good at.
Rox: Sure. Like let's say you're shy but you want to be outgoing. You actually practice it to see if it takes. Do you think I got this openly naïve without practice?
On Could You Go Twice:
Rox: Yes. For me the interesting thing about improv is once you know the structure, you can engage even more the next time. For instance, I could brush up on my Gaelic and propose to Mickey.
Elle: This is Aislesay.com, Rox, not Idate.com.
Rox: In honor of improv, let's vow to do one unscripted thing every day. I promise to-
Elle: Be on time?
Rox: Not like that Elle. OK, I promise to make up an amazing story and sing it every time I'm late.
Elle: And I promise that every time I'm yelling at you for being late, I'll do it in rhyme.
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