30 October 2007

Ain't No Party Like A "The Office" Party . . .

Some of you have been awaiting this post for a while now. Like, about three days. Man, am I sorry it took me so long, but when you have an experience as profound as I recently have, you have to allow yourself at least a little time to let it settle in. See if you don't. When you return from a pilgrimage, you need a little "me time" padding at the end. I'm not even sure I'm ready to write about this, but, then again, maybe it's good that I try. Maybe, just maybe, it will further me in understanding the experience.

Last weekend I traveled out to Scranton for work. This is by no means an unusual experience. In fact, nearly half of my adult acting career has been spent in affiliation with The Northeast Theatre or their commedia dell'arte branch, Zuppa del Giorno. Hell, I go out to Pennsylvania all the time, too, to catch other shows in their season, visit friends and perform or teach workshops at events outside the theatre. Love Scranton. It's like that friend you had in high school about whom everyone else's response was, "You hang out with him?" (I probably was "that friend" more often than I had one such.) But you know what they all don't. That, in spite of appearances, this was one of the coolest friends to have, if you took the time to truly get to know him. So: Yay: Scranton!

Scranton was having its biggest event in recent memory last weekend: The first annual "The Office" Convention. A couple of months ago I received an email from TNT informing me of this and asking me--along with all their other previous improvisatorily trained (some of them by me, he admitted with trepidation) actors--if I would not like to contribute to a semi-improvised performance in conjunction with said convention. I deliberated a bit. It sounded like a custom-made suckfest, to be honest with you. Improvising in a mall? For an audience who was there to see celebrities? I have participated in events before that I have since blocked from my memory, lest they convince me never to mount the boards again in my whole life ever ever (perhaps a future entry will be devoted to The Dreaded Borders Incident from our efforts to promote Noble Aspirations). Ultimately I decided to go for it, however. I love the show and improvising in general and, frankly, realized it can never hurt to brush sleeves with working television actors.

Various things came to be in the intervening weeks. I spent two months night-and-day improvising to create and perform Prohibitive Standards. Friend Sam came to be inscripted to direct the event, and Friend Steve to craft an initial scenario. Finally, just about every cast member but the five most major was confirmed to attend, and at least one--Oscar Nunez--had promised to perform with us in our little shopping mall adventure. Last week, in my few days back in New York before heading out again, I tried to save up energy for . . . well . . . I knew not what. But I had lots of indications that, whatever it was, it was going to be surreal.

The first of these occurred around 4:00 PM Friday, when we New Yorkers were scheduled to meet our ride on the corner of 32nd Street and 8th Avenue. It was a dismal day of swelling, cold rain when we individually happened upon the realization that there is no 32nd and 8th. It is one of those rare idiosyncrasies of midtown New York city planning, a result of Madison Square Garden and the main branch of the post office on either side of 8th, like enormous children engaged in a game of slot car racing. We knew our ride was "a limo being sent out for us." There were four of us, and we promptly set about keeping our eyes open for a regular old town car, debating whether it would have Pennsylvania or New York plates.

When we found our ride at last, we found it was a white, stretch, SUV limousine. No foolin'.

Bear in mind: The actors were being paid a $50 food stipend for the weekend. They did, to their great credit, put us up in a very nice hotel.

Further surreality came upon us as we arrived in town late, due to weather and confusion. After getting checked in to the hotel, we all sqeezed into David Zarko's Prius (penance for our boat trip out) to be driven to the rehearsal, already in progress, in The Steamtown Mall. (Or: "The Mall at Steamtown," depending how posh you wish to sound.) We walked right in through the front doors to discover an informal sort of party going on. Everyone of our cast of non-Office folk, about a dozen, was there on a stage in the dead center of the mall that was decorated with huge replicas of the cast members' faces. There were also several people representing the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, who had brought with them a cooler full of wine and beer. I wasn't planning to partake. Then I found out we weren't working from a written scenario, and were just going to be assigned characters that we were welcome to throw out as well. For three hours we were brought drinks as we tried to choreograph a concluding brawl to our as-yet-unknown scenario. I had to concentrate to avoid imagining scenes from the film Dawn of the Dead. The perk for me (continuing our foray into the surreal experience) was to wish aloud for a paper shredder on stage, and actually have a maintenance man bring one down in a matter of minutes.

The next morning we were rehearsing in the theatre (there is no rest for capitalism) and had a few more actors to incorporate, so the brawl changed completely. We also did character interviews as a way to explore our burgeoning, soon-to-be-realized-whether-they're-ready-or-not characters. We also did a little Viewpoints(TM) work for a warm-up. What else did we do? Let me see.... Um.... It's all kind of a blur, really. Over the entire three hours there was a mounting sense of dread, born in part from the recognition that there just wasn't enough time to create something reliably good. The best we could do was plan an entrance and exit, promise to try not to interrupt one another and give the rest to God. There are, after all, no atheists in foxholes.

At 1:30 we came to the mall in pieces, and all was chaos. The stage area was already teeming with fans being warmed up by schwag give-away and a local team mascot (who, as it turns out, can do a wicked handstand IN A GIANT PENGUIN OUTFIT) and various of our cast didn't have their cell phones in their costumes, so it was nigh impossible to get together on anything. Once, miraculously, we were all in the general area of the stage, assuring eager audience members that we wouldn't be blocking their view much longer, everything held in place for a good twenty minutes. Not a one of us knew what was going on, and there was no one to tell us. We moved in our entrance groups from side to side of the stage as an emcee (likely self-appointed) berated the crowd with commands to clear the stairways, and threatened to forcefully expel them if they acted up in the presence of the celebrities. I was reminded of high school pep rallies, and contemplated the possibility that there may be no such thing as a terminal velocity when it comes to that plummeting feeling one gets in one's stomach at such times.

Then, unexpectedly, I was buoyed. A family asked me and my comrades (as we nervously awaited some sign from above for when to take the stage) if we were part of the entertainment. We informed them we were, and they were instantly excited and bashfully asked if they could take their picture with us. As we got into place to have our photograph taken, they explained to us that they were "stockholders," which meant that they had paid a good amount for a ticket to all the events this weekend. Big fans of the show, and they were just as excited to get a moment with us--we working stiffs (with occasional limo benefits)--as they were to be there at all. We had to cross to the other side of the stage for our entrance (again), and bid them a fond farewell. That's part of what's great about "The Office"; it makes heroes out of regular joes.

Well, the performance itself was chaos, utter and complete. We all entered the stage at once, rather than as a start to our story. Friend Geoff, thank goodness, and his scene partner Will had been warming up the crowd for about twenty minutes as bumbling security guards, so our entrance as relative nobodies had a strong enough precedence so as not to seem utterly random. No sooner had we sat down at the long table, when the performers from the show arrived to screams of delight. Oscar, Daryl and Andy (the other one) sat down with us, and we were off. No one could hear us, of course, because the acoustics were God-awful and the mikes were all set at different levels. Control of the "meeting" bounced between Friends Heather and Sam, who were just trying to keep the ball passing to the cast members. Oscar seemed most at home in the chaos, spinning off some really wonderful replies. Daryl was a crowd favorite, and eventually really got the spirit of the thing. Andy, poor guy, seemed a little confused. I can't say as I blamed him.

For my part, I quickly gave up on speaking. I wasn't near a mic, and could tell anyway that only the cast members were going to get substantial laughs for speaking, invited as they are into everyone's home once a week. So I became shameless quickly, an eager accountant who kept standing up from the table when he was referred to, and had to be asked to return to his seat.
The climax of my performance, quite clearly, came about in establishing a conflict with one actor who was playing an environmentalist and kept complaining about Dunder Mifflin's recycling policies. At one point I took the shreddings of report pages from the shredder's canister and threw them in his face. Shameless? Yes. But effective. I found three times to do it, and the third time coincided with the ending brawl, in which I made sure to cover a good portion of the audience in paper as well. If any show executives were watching, I probably dropped a nuke on any possibility of their being impressed with my performance. But, hell: the crowd loved it.

That was the note the performance ended on, and we got good applause for it. It was fascinating to watch the actors from the show get wrangled (eventually) off the stage by their respective assistants, whose job, it seems, is to be abrasive so the stars can be genial. They were just that--all of them--and I was impressed with how ready they had been to play a mall with us. Thereafter, we collectively sighed and were hosted to dinner and an open bar on the second floor of The Banshee. The cast broke up there for various destinations. I went with a small group to the nearby, quaint little town of Waverly to watch another amateur production: A haunted house, hosted by theatre students of Friend Michaela. As we wound our way through bloody dioramas, startled by the occasional thrust arm or sound effect, I thought about how useful fear is, and wondered how much of it I would visit upon myself just for that feeling of relief, and occasionally satisfaction, when it passes.


Davey said...

What an exciting post!

BTW, there is a button on the bottom left when you are typing a post that says something like Post options.

On the right side of that tab you can change the time and date of your post, so that it goes up on top of your blog, instead of under the zombie post.

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks for the tip, Davey. I modified the date of the zombie entry, actually, which I started on the 30th. I actually prefer (generally) to keep the entry on the day I start it, confusing though it may be for my readership of seven. This makes it more journal and less 'blog, but that's how I trundle along.