Apparently, most fourteen year old boys are into sports. I had an improv group.
In the Fall of 1972, The Responsive Scene, an improvised radio show produced by David Shepherd, (co-creator of Compass, the predecessor of Second City) ended its run. Responsive Scene involved the listening audience, who called in with scene suggestions for the studio actors to improvise. Being a regular caller to the show, I was devastated. For three months it had been a weekly outlet where I was allowed to be a performer, writer and director. Now it was over.
|From a WRVR-FM press release|
|Responsive Scene Radio Show. Left to right; Penny Kurtz, David Shepherd, Howard Jerome & Lynn Bernfield|
Then, I got a call from David Shepherd.
David and Howard Jerome, the host and one of the performers from Responsive Scene, had developed a new format called the Improv Olympics, which they were about to unveil. David wanted me and my friends to participate. The format was a “performance sport” where teams of actors improvised scenes competitively.
|1972 Improv Olympic playbill.|
|Winning team congratulate themselves.|
Within a few months, I formed my first improv group – Fool’s Paradise – a moniker Shepherd hated (“It sounds like you’re mocking yourselves!”). We competed every week at the Space for Innovative Development in Manhattan, the first home for the Improv Olympics. The highpoint came when we started beating the adult players.
|Fool's Paradise improvising at the Space for Innovative Development.|
|Fool's Paradise beats David Shepherd's team.|
There were two versions of Fool’s Paradise. In junior high, it was me, David Hasson, his sister Robyn, and Eddie Ben-Menachem. The second, in high school was me, Steven Blance, Mark Traub, Bruce Herman, Heidi Adelman, Debbie Triolo, Sheree Givre, Martha Orellana, David Oberon and Eric Mortensen. There were also friends who attended workshops or participated in a one time project; Seth Newman, Robert Socolof, Susan Israel.
|Fool's Paradise - Bottom left to right; Mark Traub, Michael Golding. Middle; Sheree Givre, Martha Orellana, Debbie Triolo. Top; Bruce Herman, Steven Blance, David Oberon.|
From 1972 through 1976, “Fool’s Paradise” continued playing in the Olympics at the Space for Innovative Development. Alumni from Compass and Second City would frequently come down to the Olympics to be guest stars and I was fortunate enough to watch and sometimes play with Barbara Harris, Andrew Duncan and Marty Friedberg.
|Improv Olympic directing suggestions.|
|Improv Olympic Player's Contract.|
Fool’s Paradise had a separate life away from the Space for Innovative Development. Rehearsals usually took place in the basement of my home, where we played a variety of Spolin games to keep ourselves sharp – or mini Improv Olympic matches. Then we started having “improv theme parties.” First, we started with roasts. Each month, a member of Fool’s Paradise would be chosen as the man/woman of the hour. Then we moved on to a talk show format, set in the future, where all of us would be famous and in our thirties.
|Fool's Paradise for hire.|
We had an improv club in high school, composed entirely of Fool’s Paradise members. Our company played at assemblies and parties. Our greatest achievement was a ninety minute show at the West End YMCA in Manhattan, which was a combination of games and scenes developed through improvisation. There was also an homage to Nichols and May, where we reenacted the telephone operator scene. As was the case with the Improv Olympics, a section of our show involved improvising with members of the audience.
|West End YMCA show. Heide Adelman & Eric Mortensen as over-anxious shoe salespersons, with the author as customer.|
|West End YMCA show. Fool's Paradise watches cautiously as two audience members improvise.|
|West End YMCA show. Fool's Paradise member Bruce Herman (left) improvises with audience member.|
|West End YMCA show. Mark Traub & Heidi Adelman reenact Nichols & May telephone operator scene.|
David and I developed a mentor/protégé relationship, resulting in spending time at his home in Greenwich Village. One summer, several of us spent a weekend at David’s country house in Armonk, experimenting with improvising video movies. Our parents were either very trusting or naïve. It was one thing for us to hop a subway in Queens to go into Manhattan and play theatre games with some old hippies. Now, a bunch of us were going away for a few days with this guy who wasn’t a family member.
|Experimenting improvising movies.|
As a result of our experiments with video, David loaned me his equipment so we could make a Fool’s Paradise movie. Seth Newman, a friend who was not a member of my troupe, had an idea for a movie about a man obsessed by the Kennedy assassination to the point where it interfered with his life. Together, we outlined the beats for the story, Seth took the directing helm, and the rest of us took on serious acting roles. The end result, “Forgotten Memories,” a tight sixty minute movie that impressed David no end, since he frequently viewed us as teenage jokesters.
By the time we graduated high school, Fool’s Paradise was over. Several of the core group went out of state for college. Steven Blance and I frequently joked about a Fool’s Paradise reunion. Unexpectedly, during my senior year at New York University, it happened.
Mark Traub, who was also attending New York University, had a video project to shoot – a game show parody called “Beat The Punch.” He recruited me, Steven Blance, Bruce Herman, and Robert Socolof for the cast. When we got together in the studio, Mark presented us with his idea, but there was nothing on paper. At first I thought “this isn’t like Mark to be unprepared,” then realized Mark choose the right people. Within minutes, we hammered out an outline, established the beats, improvised a few ideas, and then shot the concept. “Beat The Punch” involved a host giving two contestants the opening line of a joke (“How do you make a gypsy omelet?) and one has to yell out the punch line first (“Steal two eggs!”)
Steven was the host; Robert and I were the contestants. We decided to use the game “One Second Behind” where one player says exactly what the other has said; one second afterwards (like an echo). Robert gave the correct punch line first, followed by me giving the same exact punch a second later, behaving as if I came up with it first. We kept cracking up and had to reshoot the sequence several times.
At a diner after the shoot, I told Steven that we finally had the Fool’s Paradise reunion we always fantasized about. Steven replied, “It was also our final performance.”
Well, yes – and no.
A little over twenty-five years later, I was conducting a private workshop in North Hollywood. I had recently reconnected with Martha Orellana on Facebook, discovering that we both lived in Los Angeles. Martha showed up at the workshop, where we played Emotional Hurdles, one of the events from the Improv Olympics. In many ways, it was a surreal experience – but it filled us both with joy.
When my father passed away last year, the first few friends who reached out to me with condolences were members of Fool’s Paradise, several of them showed up at the funeral, wake and my family’s house. One of my brothers noticed that when we interact with each other, we’re not merely talking. We do characters, pantomime, sound effects. It’s just second nature to us. It’s how we’ve always related to each other.
Some members of Fool’s Paradise look back on those years as an interesting period, which ended after high school because it was time to grow up. But whenever I talk on the phone with one of my friends from that period, or get together in person, it’s like the “play switch” is suddenly turned on.
Personally, I don’t think it was ever turned off. Hopefully, it never will be.
|David Shepherd setting up a scene for Fool's Paradise member Mark Traub.|
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.