Sunday, February 23, 2014

Improvising over Lunch by Michael Golding

"The development of the games for improvisation are benign.  They are healthy. They are therapeutic. They are what we should all be doing. When you play, you do it with somebody else, which brings you, hopefully, closer to the other person.”  David Shepherd – 1999.

During the late spring of 2010, Willie Wyllie and I made a pilgrimage to David Shepherd’s home in Belchertown, Massachusetts, to attend a celebration of the 10th anniversary of ACT NOW! in nearby Amherst.  Inspired by David Shepherd’s format MoviExperience, ACT NOW! is a nonprofit organization created by Nancy Fletcher, which builds confidence, leadership, collaboration and character in adolescent girls through the process of developing and shooting an improvised movie.  Included in the celebration, was a preview of two segments from the recently completed documentary, “David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre,” directed by Mike Fly, written by me and executive produced by Willie Wyllie.

Willie co-created the Canadian Improv Games (CIG) with Howard Jerome and is the organization’s CEO.  Inspired by David Shepherd’s Improv Olympics, CIG is a nation-wide program involving over 300 high schools and more than 200 volunteers who produce 100 nights of performances featuring 3,000 students. It culminates in a week long festival at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. I have known Willie for over thirty five years, shared many adventures with him, and we are as close as brothers.

Unfortunately, Willie was at the precipice of a new chapter in his life.  As the result of health issues, he had to step down as a partner at one of Canada’s top law firms.  Unable to travel alone, I had to rendezvous with him in Ottawa, so that we could drive down to the states together for the celebration, accompanied by his portable oxygen machine – which turned out to be a great upper body work-out for me.

When I arrived in Ottawa, I expected to find Willie depressed by the change of course his life had taken.  Instead, I found the same old Willie; self-effacing, playful, and sardonic - with a penchant for putting me into situations that test my stamina and mental health.  We kept the conversation light during our long drive, primarily because Willie slept through most of the eight hours it took us to get to Belchertown. Every attempt I made to get into his head regarding his health was tactfully brushed aside as Willie fell back to sleep.  Even a sudden tornado warning, followed by torrential, apocalyptic rain with heavy winds could not rouse him from his slumber.  Bastard. I say that with love.  He was curious when he noticed the impression my hands made gripping the steering wheel and why I kept repeating “This is the Emergency Broadcast system. This is NOT a test. Repeat.  This is NOT a test.”  
The celebration was a success. Willie and I were pleased by the enthusiastic reaction the clips from the documentary received.  David Shepherd was in the process of overhauling his latest format, Life-Play and wanted our input.  Created by David, Carman Dewees and Chris Britt, Life-Play was designed as a series of theatre games to be played over the phone.  Several podcasts were produced, utilizing a variety of Life-Play games. Entertaining to listen to, yet David felt something was missing.  The three of us agreed to have lunch together the next day to brainstorm.

That night, Willie and I were up until dawn hammering out different ways to approach Life-Play.  Willie’s sleep cycle is unlike that of us mere mortals.  He can stay up for days, while being perfectly alert and cogent.  This is usually followed by being unconscious for days.  I now refer to this as “Willie’s hibernation cycle.”   By the time rays of sun beamed through the windows of the inn we were sharing, I was begging him to allow me to finally sleep.  He reluctantly acquiesced, then worked on the format for a few more hours.

Refreshed by two and a half hours of sleep, I awoke at 8:30am to discover Willie sitting in a chair with a bowl of cereal on his lap, wondering if I was going to spend the entire day in bed.  As we drove to David’s house to pick him up for lunch, we agreed that if the essence of Life-Play is about exploring one’s life, then the improv coach (known as “the guide” in Life-Play) must gain as much information from a player about their life before commencing.

At a Chinese restaurant in Amherst, David wasted no time cross-examining Willie with questions that have been on my mind from the start of our trip; “Why did you retire?  How do you feel about it? How do you envision your future?”  Willie was honest and open with David.  “I felt that I couldn’t compete, anymore.”  This admission was followed by fifteen minutes of Willie addressing David’s other questions.  I was hanging on his every word.

When it came time to discuss Life-Play, I asked David if we could demonstrate the refinements that Willie and I were talking about, rather than tell him.  Of course, David was up for that.  Turning to Willie, I asked if he was willing to play, with me as his guide.  To my surprise, he said yes.  I decided to start with Repetition Poem, where a player is given an emotion and a repetition line for his poem.  What stuck out to me when Willie was telling David about his situation was how he kept going back to “I couldn’t compete, anymore.”  So, the repetition line I pitched to Willie was “I can’t compete, anymore,” tempered by resignation as his emotion.

By the end of his poem, David and I learned a lot about what led up to Willie’s decision to retire.  Because he was no longer at the top of his game in negotiating and drafting complex legal contracts, Willie felt he was letting his partners, clients and firm down.  On top of that, he felt that he was living on borrowed time. With each breath of “I can’t compete, anymore,” Willie’s defenses dropped incrementally.

Surprisingly, Willie was up for another game – again, with me as his guide.  I chose Zoom Story, where the player is given an opening line as a springboard for a story.  During the course of the story, the guide can direct the player to “zoom in” on object, feeling, environment and action – while continuing the story.  Since Willie’s Repetition Poem ended with him doubting that he would be around much longer, I decided to set the story twenty years in the future.  The opening line I pitched was “I was sitting in my chair.”

By this time, the lunch crowd was gone from the restaurant, and it was just the three of us.  In his Zoom Story, Willie envisioned himself as a withered, infirm man.  His youngest son Joel comes for a visit and Willie is thrilled to see him.  He attempts to get out of the chair to greet him, but his arms can’t support his body.  Joel anticipates this, and rushes over, embracing Willie, so he doesn’t have to struggle. By guiding him through the changes of emotion, object, environment and action, David and I felt Willie’s frustration with his failing limbs, the scent of the chair he spends most of his time in, how his clothes felt on his body, his exaltation upon Joel’s appearance, and the comfort his son’s embrace gave him.  Despite his physical state, Willie was able to revel in the emotions of joy, pride and love.

When Willie finished his Zoom Story, I asked why he chose Joel out of his three children as the one who visits. “Because Joel is mini-me.”  Then, Willie told us a story we never heard before.  Years ago, Willie’s lung capacity dropped to a life-threatening level and he had to be put into an induced coma.  Things went from bad to worse when his physicians couldn’t get him out of it, and a couple of months later, it seemed like Willie would not survive.  His wife, Sandra, was told by the doctors that Willie had only 24 hours or less to live. Two hours later, Sandra found out she was pregnant with Joel.  Miraculously, Willie woke up from his coma after having a dream about attempting to board a train, with the conductor turning him away because “it wasn’t his time.”  Opening his eyes, Willie saw two framed pictures next to his bed.  One was a picture of Sandra with their two children, Bethany and Ben.  The other was a silhouette of a child with the phrase “Coming soon.” In his opiate caused stupor, it took hours for Willie to realize it wasn’t a movie that was coming soon.

My last observation about Willie’s Zoom Story almost became a bone to pick, with me.  “Let me understand something.  You have yourself on death’s doorstep with your Repetition Poem.  I give you hope by adding another twenty years with Zoom Story, and you undercut it by being infirm. What’s up with that?”  Willie counted off his various conditions, which included severe fatigue due to leukemia and severe chronic nerve pain (the result of his near death experience 12 years earlier).   He was being realistic.

Just then, Walt, David’s 74 year old friend dropped by with his wife to say hi.   Walt apologized for missing the impromptu improv cabaret party we had thrown at David’s house the other night, because he was too ill after a chemo treatment.  Willie was surprised by this, because Walt is a strong, vibrant man who appears to be the epitome of good health. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you need chemo for?”  Smiling, Walt responds “Lung cancer. Twenty years ago my doctors gave me five years.”  Willie is intrigued. “What do you attribute beating the odds to?”  Walt points to his wife. “This woman. No treatment is off the table.  Every once in a while I need chemo, I get sick, then, it’s business as usual.”  Willie didn’t say anything after that, but I knew the wheels were turning. Call it serendipity, coincidence or just plain stupid luck. I am grateful Walt showed up when he did.

As we left the restaurant, Willie admits that was the first time he had improvised in twenty years. “Why did you decide to play, today?”  With a matter of fact tone, Willie replied, “Because I trust you.”  My cell rang as I opened the car door.  It’s my wife, Jody, calling from our home in Los Angeles. She was just in a car accident, the adrenaline rush had worn off and she needed to hear her husband’s voice.  As I comforted Jody, Willie took the car keys out of my hand and opened the back seat door for me.  I slid in; Willie got behind the wheel and David got in the passenger seat next to him.  Off we went.  Apparently, my job as a guide was not done for the day, yet.

Epilogue:  Willie went into a 36 hour hibernation cycle that night, where no force of nature could wake him. I was beside myself with worry. When he finally awoke, he was ready for the next leg of our trip, which was New York – and was wondering why I looked so stressed.  The last thing I said to David before we left was “David, you were there at the beginning of my friendship with Willie, and now you can say you were there at the end as well.”

I could see David laughing in my rear view mirror as we pulled out of his driveway.

Hanging after Act Now! celebration.  Left to right; Howard Jerome, David Shepherd, Michael Golding & Willie Wyllie.
Willie Wyllie, Michael Golding & Nancy Fletcher, founder of Act Now!

Life-Play handbook.


Canadian Improv Games 

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at 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. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. 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.