Del Close was my teacher in Chicago after I stumbled into improv because I met Janet Coleman through Charles Mingus’ widow Sue. Janet had written a book called The Compass: The Improvisational Theatre that Revolutionized American Comedy. I read the book because it was about my college and I was in a post collegiate float/freefall, fancying myself a stealth indie academic, doing field work in the service class, waitressing, baggage handling, reading books in bars. So I started taking classes at Second City hoping to find the contemporary versions of the characters in the book: Severn Darden, Barbara Harris, Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Paul Sills, David Shepherd, Teddy Flicker, but I was totally lost being pimped into scenes about mainstream pop cultural stuff I was oblivious to (I’ve since somewhat caught up) and being asked to play a character named “Honey,” whoever that is. I spent more time drinking at Old Town with my teachers. Not that there was anything wrong with that- -shout out to Don De Pollo who told me he’d never had a worse class than mine and cracked me up (“if you’re going to do it again, which you’re not….”) –I just didn’t think improv or comedy was for me.
One night at the Second City afterhours improv set, I saw Adam McKay playing Noam Chomsky teaching a kindergarten class and Tina Fey belittling a group of men while stripping for them (I might be confusing nights but man did those Chicago boys like to see strippers and girls jump out of cakes.) While my classmates hated this new style and pointed out all the improv mistakes made, I stalked Adam at the bar after and asked him how one gets to do THAT. He said, “go study with Del.”
I hadn’t heard of IO, or Del. But I’m so glad I did. At the end of Level 1, Charna had our class doing the Horror, which was a longform about something tragic in the news. I played Susan Smith who drowned her two kids and said a black man hijacked and kidnapped them. I knew about all this because I had just spent a few months taking care of my dad after he broke his neck bodysurfing, and getting to know him, and we were really into THIS OTHER bad parent story. He also got me hooked on Homicide which inspired me to buy a TV when I got home. The Horror ended with Susan looking at her kids in the rear view mirror and telling them it was going to be okay, they just needed to be quiet, for once, shhh, I think I sang a lullaby, as she drove into the lake, while on one side tv cameras trampled one another and on the other a family in their own tragic home consumed it all. We did that after a Level 1 class and I WAS HOOKED.
I got a little unhooked after my dad suddenly died, but when I came back to improv, Charna let me go right to Del. I was a dark and morbid mess and Del loved that. I mostly did uncomfortable monologues about inappropriate dreams and death and weird initiations and god bless anyone who tried to do scenes with me then. Del was so protective. “Stop. Listen to her. Sit down.” Later my sister joined us and Del joked that he’d taught the Murrays, the Belushis, the Farleys and now the Mannings. Despite my protestations that I actually HAD gone to college, Del would brag that the smartest improvisers around were a baggage handler and a prison warden. (what was his name?) I am not bragging. Very few people liked me, except Del. I didn’t know what I was doing, which I think was the only reason I could do anything. Del would talk an hour and then have us get up on stage and just improvise for an hour. Or two. Sometimes he’d make some adjustments, he compared it to a ship’s captain making a slight turn and then, not right away, but in a few hours, the course would change. He was healthy and inspired then and couldn’t wait to work with our class, explore new forms and ideas that he’d been thinking about all week. Later when I taught workshops I tried to do the same thing. I don’t think improv is something that you teach, you are just working with whatever boat is in front of you, giving it a safe place to discover what is possible. I mean we’re all grown-ups….kinda…. I guess the metaphor of musicians is that you can learn scales and such, but we are the instrument and if you haven’t learned some scales from your own life you probably aren’t going to be able to do improv that is very interesting. It’s just life, slowed down. Regular conversation, with a spotlight. My point is that Del never taught us improv. No rules. No games. No warmups “if you aren’t warmed up from life you shouldn’t be doing this work.” He assumed we knew everything already and he was just there to help us find it. He yelled at us when we got in the way of our own poetry and genius, like not knowing Pilgrim’s Progress, or when I said that patterns build. (They don’t. They repeat.) He told us we were light years beyond what anyone in the past did, that we shouldn’t look back. Stand on the shoulders of giants to see further, all that.
One time we improvised in one scene so long that my scene partner Molly left the stage to get her cigarettes and lit up and I was so engaged in the scene, I forgot I had quit years before and smoked. And then I was a smoker again. Just like that. Improv took over my life like that, and that quickly, because of Del. I drove him home after class which turned into an internship running errands. So then the drug was free. And then when it was time to move on, I did. Because he taught me that, too. Why stay in a scene that isn’t working. Just let it go. It happened. Don’t bring it back. Don’t force it to work. We all saw it and will all remember it. Maybe something will get used, maybe it won’t. It’s not a failure but just leave it there, move on. Later my sister and I wrote a play called Dead Dads and were absolutely surprised when people laughed. We were just telling the truth. Del had taught us to make darkness laugh.
In college, my whole body would shake when I raised my hand in class. I would fall apart when challenged, and since I was a kid, I would shut down or give up if ignored. I could only ever be assertive on paper or drunk. Del made me believe that the world was filled with people who might be interested in what I had to say. Or fuck em if they weren’t interested, say it anyway. And more importantly, that it is my job to listen to and celebrate others. To treat everyone like poets and geniuses- audiences, fellow players, students.
So that’s why I am doing improv again, and why every year I am so grateful for the chance to celebrate Del’s life –fuck it, let’s celebrate his death, too– by doing a show in the Del Close Marathon. Thank you UCB, and thank you to every person who has been in a good scene or a bad scene with me. It’s been a great journey and there are some great things we can use from it.
As part of UCB’s Del Close Marathon. At Urban Stages 259 West 30th Street, btwn 7th and 8th Ave
Cast for this show:
And a special guest musician who we can’t say who it is!