Friday, February 05, 2016

The Involunteers.

The Involunteers.

This one goes out to my victims. The Involunteers.

I just returned from a five month gig in Seattle at Teatro Zinzanni. I was playing the mad movie director Cecil B. DeGrille. The show was called Hollywood Nights and in it Teatro ZinZanni doubled as "Chez Francine" a fabulous French restaurant presided over by none other than the divine Miss FrancineReed, blues legend and longtime partner in song with Lyle Lovett. Our concept was that on this night of all nights the biggest Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeGrille is coming for dinner. The restaurant staff (all played by an international cast of sensationally talented performers, each with their own amazing act) are thrown into a tizzy. I come in and immediately decide that Chez Francine is the perfect location for my next cinematic masterpiece. That's the set up. Besides a lot of comedy and lots of intros and outros throughout the evening I'm responsible for the audience involvement part of the show.
And that means victims. Lots of them. 
97 shows.
6 victims per show.
That's 576 complete strangers I invite to join me in the spotlight.
576 random elements that I must select as fodder for funny.
576 unpredictable, usually raucous, sometimes delightful, often inebriated involunteers I must cast in the "movie" sections that presage each course of ZinZanni's 5 star meal.
But what to do with these sometimes unwilling, sometimes overly garrulous, sometimes shy, sometimes belligerent  patrons who have paid more than a hundred dollars to escape the world or their wives or themselves and enter the 105 year old Spiegeltent that is Teatro ZinZanni?

I arrive for rehearsal a week before the rest of the cast and they put me and fellow former Cirque du Soleil clown Joe DePaul in a room with a stage manager to take notes and away we go. For six days we jam. We crack each other up. We brainstorm. (Okay, sometimes it's just a drizzle but you get the idea.) We have to come up with three bits that involve audience members that will be interspersed throughout the three hours of what ZinZanni calls Love, Chaos and Dinner. Of course there will also be juggling, trapeze, contortion, something called the Chinese pole, even an opera aria. But at the center of it all are the three audience involvement sections. That's me. Me and whoever I pick. 
We're lucky. The evening's concept is built around Cecil's megalomaniac film director so we have the pantheon of movie clich├ęs to work with. And there is a formula. These are, when all is said and done, games. Party games supported by props and lights and fabulous costumes, yes, but games. And one rule: the victim must win. I can make fun of them, I can embarrass them but in the end they win. They get an ovation. Their loved ones love them more. They survive, the unscathed stars of the evening. In the lobby after the show I see them, all smiles, getting high fives and adulation from other patrons who weren't lucky enough to be selected. It feels good.

Choosing victims is an art. For my first bit of the evening we create a piece in which I cast an extra to play a part in a kind of Downtown Abbey/Masterpiece Theatre scenario in which he must first become a butler and then say a line and deliver the Queen her royal tea. The queen dies (It's Helen Mirren's stand-in's dummy) and my victim must revive her. Hilarity ensues. The victim's victory comes at the end as we actually film him, at this point holding the ankles of a spreadeagled Queen aloft making "a sound that is filled with joy, anger, confusion, regret, triumph and sorrow".

At the end of he evening we will actually show a trailer of the Cecil B. DeGrille movie with our real victims from that evening spliced in. 

Basically the formula with victim work is a lot like what I've discussed in these pages before: getting a clown in trouble. Every involunteer gets a couple fairly easy tasks and then an impossible one. And "real people" are a strange lot I found. You never know what they're going to do. And that's what makes it so damn fun.
But how to pick them?
Usually you forage. During what's called "Animation" you move among the tables. You touch shoulders. You make funny. You check for wedding rings or canes. It's psychology at 100 miles an hour. You go with your gut. For my second bit of the evening I need a couple who don't know it yet but by the end will be kissing in slow motion in a love scene at a Moscow train station. 
I want fun- but not crazy. I want slightly reticent- but not painfully shy. (Nothing kills laughs like seeing someone in agony under a follow spot.) 
You use your radar. This bit worked best when it was an older couple who were perhaps celebrating an anniversary (my record was 47th) and still have that little spark in their smile. The victory moment in this bit was of course the kiss and when it worked right 300 people let out a chorus of awwww's. This lead directly into the audience dance section of the show and when the feeling was there it was true magic. 
 Going for the juggler.
 Of course that bit was later in the evening, after I'd had a chance to smooze and covertly vet them. But the first victim was selected from afar as I awaited my first entrance in The Producer's Booth, tucked behind a window that gave me a good view of the crowd. Body language, attitude, pecking order, engagement were my only barometers on whether someone was going to be a joy or a jerk. Actually by the end of the run it didn't matter. Even the jerks were a joy. 

-->Of course there are stand outs among them. I'll never forget a man's wife who, when I asked her husband if there was anyone in the world he had a special chemistry with, yelled out from the audience "His mother!"  It brought the house down.

I remember too the guy who I cast as one of my samurai- I had a bit with three victims playing villagers in a Kurosawa style epic that culminated in cutting a cabbage in half in mid air with my katana-  who came to the show twice and both times I cast him again (not recognizing him) in the same role. 

Cabbage cole slaughtered.
So thank you victims, each and every one. As soon as I pulled you out of the safety of your seat and onto my tightrope in the center of the room the energy in the room quadrupled. Every time I leave a space for you to do something or ask you a question the audience knows we are all moving into unknown territory. We all await my response to your response together. And after twenty or so shows I'm pretty much ready for whatever you're going to say. If I've picked the right victim you'll become my unwitting straightman, setting them up so I can knock 'em down.

So that's a wrap on Hollywood Nights at Teatro ZinZanni. Thank you, involunteers. Take a bow. 

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