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What happened when a writer hit the boards instead of his keyboard
I'm dying up here. It's my first crossover from writer to performer, and I'm about to go down hard. Beside me stands a viking named Valdor wearing a horned helmet, T-shirt, and jeans. Valdor stalks the boards between sketches, ad-libbing one-liners in a valiant attempt to protect us from comedy's archenemy, but he's losing the fight. While he wins a sympathy chuckle from someone's mother or best friend, pity has a short life span. It's colder on stage than I had imagined yet I cannot stop sweating. The viking exits and my sketch begins. With one blow from the kindly brute's sword, he could put an end to all this suffering. Instead, he lets the audience take care of that.
After completing a single sketch-writing class at the People's Improv Theatre, I signed up for Battle Sketch!, a competition featuring bits penned and performed by the scribes themselves. The winner is determined by audience vote, returning the following month to "defend the crown."
The sketch I entered was odd and puerile. A hapless schlub named Mr. Deepwell goes to have his prostate examined, yet no one can find it—doctors, nurses, John Travolta, etc. After four pages of high jinks, a mythological creature named Sketchopotamus appears and hunts down the elusive treasure.
In the green room before the show, participants hastened to fill their casts, asking fellow competitors if they'd play a role or two.
"Hi! Would you mind playing a monster called Sketchopotamus?"
"Do you think you could play him in a distinctive bass-baritone, the bastard love child of Barry White and Frankenstein's monster, with a touch of Bowzer from Sha Na Na?"
"Um, I guess."
This would not be the startling debut of a bright new force in American comedy.
And really, I should have known. But it's funny how the mind works, blotting out our lost battles for decades, sleeper cells of shame that are suddenly called into action at our weakest moments. As I prepared to go on, it occurred to me that I had been here before. I had a flashback to my freshman year at Stony Brook University. I was a young idiot who barely spoke a word, a member of the football team, and magnificently immature. So I took a drama class. Unlike others who'd come to the stage to realize their calling, energized by the applause and the camaraderie of belonging to a troupe, I was just curious. I auditioned for a part in The Madwoman of Chaillot. I wore the costume they gave me, barked out a few lines, and pursued every female cast member. I had real arguments on stage, made faces at my fellow football players in the audience, and tilted my fedora back so it wouldn't mess up my hair for the after party. I was an abomination.
Since then I've tried to make amends, developing into an avid theatregoer and the drama gods seemed appeased, but with one stipulation: Come as often as you like, but step one foot on stage, anywhere on the planet, and we shall cast our vengeance upon you. I honored this agreement for years, appreciating the masters and behaving like a gentleman. But then decades went by and I thought I could get away with it. The PIT venue is small and subterranean, and there were more performers than audience members. Who would know?
The gods must be slumming it, because the jig is up quickly. My actors flub and misfire. There are awkward pauses and lifeless utterances. The flow is off, the timing nonexistent, and my beloved Sketchopotamus is more Cookie Monster than primordial beast with a thirst for human glands. I can't understand it. My two-year old thought this sketch was hilarious.
I'm also there solo. I have no one in the audience to ham it up for me, no one to pat my back and tell me lies. I have no acting training to speak of beyond that episode of Friends in which Gary Oldman teaches Joey the finer points of dialogue: "Enunciation is the mark of a good actor. And when you enunciate, you spit!" My one saving grace is not to fight it. I will die a happy death and wipe the stage clean.
I've cast myself as Deepwell. As each actor has a go at me, I slobber and shout with unwarranted gusto. When Sketch appears to save the day, I let out an operatic cry of joy until my body goes limp. A silence rises from the audience and infuses the stage, a nothingness so profound that no one, not even Shakespeare or the Greeks, could withstand it. And yet I count the evening as a smashing success. Not only have I paid my debt to the drama gods, I've reaffirmed my rightful place in the theatre world: the audience.
JB McGeever's work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Southampton Review, and Writer's Digest. He lives in Brooklyn with his family.