If you ever done any theater improv, you know that the art and craft of making things up on the spot is a tricky one to master. The imperative is always to deal with what is happening in your environment at that very moment—to accept what’s in front of you and then embellish and extend. It’s always tempting to speed ahead in your mind, rather than trust that if you just follow your way from moment to moment to moment, you’ll get to where you need to go.
It was with delight that I read the following about musical improvisation in Anita O’Day‘s autobiography High Times, Hard Times (a wonderful portrait of a giant of jazz song). The parallels to theater improv were immediately recognizable. I had never heard anyone talk about musical improvisation the way she does. In the following paragraph she writes about how she learned to improvise on a melody by being committed to staying in the moment, and using any cues in her environment she could at that fleeting instant to spur her imagination:
“I saved ‘Oh, Lady Be Good’ as an encore. At the point where the bridge comes to the second chorus, i needed an idea from somewhere. I saw a polka dot blouse. So I developed that chorus as a bagful of polka dots. To keep the version going, I searched for ideas. Where was I going to get my inspiration? I looked around the room and that gave me the idea of singing the structure of the room—long wall, short wall, long wall, short wall. That gave me the frame for the chorus. I turned to the band. Five men. So I put it into five rhythm. Anything that I could get an idea from, I put to work to fill out my time on the stand. I did it that way because technically I was not knowledgeable about music. I needed to get the thought behind the sound going, and I took it from wherever I could get it. In all, I did twelve choruses of “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” and when I finished the place exploded. People shouted, stampeded, applauded, whistled, stood on their chair and cheered. It was the response you dream about…”
Thought and action at the speed of sound. Just thrilling.
This parody debate of Trump vs. Sanders was done on the @midnight television show in 2016, but it looks like we may be experiencing Groundhog Day soon. James Adomian does a nice job of capturing Bernie, but Anthony Atamanuik’s Trump is uncanny. It’s way beyond Alec Baldwin’s very good impersonation; it captures something more sinister.
If you haven’t seen or don’t remember the classic scene from the the movie Spartacus about the leader of a Roman slave rebellion, click on the very short video below, so that the rest of this makes sense:
If there’s anything more wonderful than a well thought-out prank, it’s a well thought-out prank that involves thousands and thousands of people. Your intrepid reporter is here to give you the skinny on the recent New York No Pants Subway Ride. The basic idea is this. New Yorkers of all ages, genders, and colors enter a subway car on a cold winter day, and one by one take off their pants. Now the beauty of this is, that they act as if they are doing nothing unusual, and they continue their normal subway activities, that is, reading, texting, looking at the subway map, but all the while they are without their pants.
This prank was organized by a group called Improv Everywhere and it has been an annual thing, and has grown to be an international prank having been done in 60 cities in 25 countries around the world. In New York, people were organized according to what borough they were coming from. I interviewed, on assignment for WBAI radio, a group of eager No-Panters, including a young couple named Hannah and Mark, standing in a park in 32 degree weather. They were preparing to receive instructions from the Improv coordinator and then to head towards the subway to de-pant. They discussed their fears and excitement, and I’ll post the radio segment next week.
But, in the interest of hard-hitting investigative reporting, I also de-panted. I had bought myself a brand new pair of lime green boxers for the occasion. If it’s not too much information, I’m usually a brief, not a boxer guy, but I was too shy to wear briefs, being a No- Pants Subway Ride virgin.
The brilliance of Improv everywhere’s plan was in the details. Here’s how it worked. We all headed to the R train and about 25 of us were assigned per subway car. At the first stop, 1 person would take off their pants and get off and stand on the platform in the same place. Then another person would do the same at the next stop. At the third stop, 2 people would de-pant, at the fourth stop 4 people would undress, at the fifth stop 8 people, and at the next stop, everyone else who was left took off their pants and stood on the platform.
Then everyone would get on the next train to arrive. Now see if you can picture in your minds the genius of this strategy. First of all, riders on the first train, would get an increasing dose of craziness as more and more people, perhaps the people who had been sitting next to them, took off their pants. But the truly great part was what would happen on the next train. Because if you picture it from the point of view of the riders on the oncoming train, at the first stop they see one person get on pantless, then another pantless person at the next stop, but then 2 people get on without pants, then 4, then 8, and it’s like an hallucination coming to life.
So I was assigned to take off my pants at the fifth stop. I was wearing a suit and tie. Since people were getting off at the first four stops, the woman sitting next to me and I exchanged glances over these strange misbehaving pants shuckers. When I started to take off my pants, she gave out a loud, Oh, No. I stuck my pants in my back pack and got off the next stop to wait on the platform.
Now this was the hardest part. Because it was really really cold on that platform. And it seemed like forever before that train would come. I tried to appear like I was just acting normally, playing Sudoku on my cell phone,. Usually I can do a 7×7 puzzle on the train, but, man, I couldn’t even solve a 4×4 one, I was so nervous.
Finally the train comes and I walk on, and there’s a little kid holding his mother’s hand, pointing at me. By this time, there are a bunch of my pantless compatriots in the car with me, so I don’t feel so lonely. I sit down next to two women who appear to be tourists. They were speaking with each other so I don’t think they realized I had no pants on. I got a little courage and stood up and leaned over them, as if I needed to study the subway map behind me. They started giggling aloud. I think we made their trip to NYC very memorable.
Well, we finally reached our destination, Union Square, where all the No-Panters from all over the city had a rendezvous. Joyous celebration. Pantless kicklines. Cops and scantily clad young ladies posing together. Somehow I managed to find Hannah and Mark again, whom I had interviewed earlier in the day, and they were very happy, too.
And what, you may ask, have I learned, grasshopper? This: Next year, I’m going to graduate to briefs.