It"s Sept. 19, barely two weeks before opening night, and a handful of Circle City Secrets players have collected at ComedySportz to go over the particulars of their next show. The place is otherwise empty. Even a few of the cast members are absent, although no one seems bothered by the fact. "Somebody fill them in," requests Chris Bauman, the creative engine of CCS.
Chris Bauman is the creative engine behind Circle City Secrets.
CCS has been producing long-run improvisational soap operas at ComedySportz since 1998. The troupe is known for their parodies of popular television shows: BeachWatch, Carmel Hills 46032, Methodical Hospital, IPD Blues, Survivor, Sex in the Circle City, The Soapranos. But with their newest offering, The Watsin"s Girl Diaries, which opened Oct. 4 and runs through Nov. 8, they are beginning to drift away from the old formula. "Freaking genius," Bauman says, recalling the first time he heard the idea for the new show. Up until then, Six Feet Under and Queer as Folk were the popular choices, but nothing was striking a chord with anyone. Wariness was at least partially responsible for the indecisiveness. During the last show, The Soapranos, some of the players felt restricted as they tried to stay true to characters that were so familiar to most of the audience members. With The Watsin"s Girl there are no restrictions. Here comes the Tire Barn Girl - nope, there she goes "We are not basing this on real life at all," says Woody Rau, who plays Step Daddy, a swimming pool magnate who can"t seem to keep the cocaine out of his bad, "70s-porn mustache. "We are making fun of the spirit of the Watson"s girl, the fact that a Watson"s girl even exists." This meeting at ComedySportz is the first time the group has gathered to go over the piece in person, but brainstorming has been happening, in fits and starts, via e-mail for a month or so. The meeting is surprisingly brief, a slender hour, but despite the nearly complete lack of structure, a lot gets accomplished. Bauman selects each cast member himself and the six actors present already know which role they will play. Bauman, who appears in many of the soaps but won"t in this one, has provided everybody with an identity and some rough character parameters. The players have had some time to think on it and tonight they take turns giving the rest of the cast the interpretation they"ve developed for their respective parts. "Your character is a lot of your own creation," says Tracy Parrish Wolfe, who has appeared in every one of the CCS soaps. "It is very raw and malleable." Most everyone suggests changes to their roles, which, without exception, are briefly discussed and then accepted. Parrish Wolfe, who has been selected to play the Watsin"s Girl"s nemesis, the Tire Barn Girl, is the exception. She throws her role out altogether and presents an idea for a new character to the group. It"s an easy sell. The Tire Barn Girl dies in the edit and CC, the Consumer Credit Girl, a bubbly blonde whose closeted skeleton is an ugly financial history, rises to join the cast. After running through the opening scene a few times - akin to a titles sequence, it"s the only part of the show that will repeat throughout the run - the group adjourns up the block for drinks. They"ll meet again for an hour before the curtain rises on opening night to go over everything with the two absent cast members and then they"ll just wing it. Save it for the show ... you can"t reheat a soufflÈ "People say that improv is like jazz; it is a purely American art form," says Jeff Ridenour, who plays beatnik poet Jonny Sonnet. "Coming into the first show, we have thought about our characters but not the others. Throughout the performance, we"re learning about the other characters and in a way that helps you develop your own [character]. As your character bounces off the others, it helps you find where you"re coming from." "You train and build a skill set and then you bring that to the show with you," Parrish Wolfe says. "You aren"t always just plucking things out of thin air. After a while you get a feel for what will work and what won"t. There is a whole framework behind it, it"s not just yukking it up." Improvisational theater isn"t about acting. Sure, being able to act helps. It might even be essential, but acting is still only the face of improv. Reacting is the heart. The audience throws out a suggestion and the troupe reacts. One reaction follows another until a scene is built, then an act, eventually a show. "I just go with the name [of the character] and really focus on what status I will play," says Mia Lee Roberts, who"ll be playing the Watsin"s Girl. "I"ll think about it for about 10 minutes before the show, then run with it. You can"t prepare too much. The audience would figure you out. I think it"s best to be fresh and roll with whatever the other actors are doing." In other words: Save it for the show. You can"t reheat a soufflÈ. "The hardest thing is learning not to think," says Chad Marshall, who, in the role of Reese Nichols, the Watsin"s Girl"s avid and unrequited admirer, is appearing in only his second CCS production. "If you have an idea, most of the time it"s not going to happen because another player will do something you weren"t anticipating, [something] that makes your idea obsolete. When you"re onstage, you start with nothing and you have to come up with something on the spot. You can"t prepare. You just have to react; you can"t plan. You have to create it on the spot." The challenge for Bauman is to assemble a cast that keeps the audience laughing and moves the story along. Bauman can set the show"s premise and select the players, but once the curtain goes up, it"s really out of his hands. "The role that Chris plays is subtle but integral," says Peter Dunn, who as white boy rapper Gangsta G is easily the most over-the-top performer in the show. "He grounds us, but he"s also forcing us to take more risks. He"s always telling us to move it along." "It"s tough," Ridenour says. "One of the biggest things with finding that balance is mixing the right people. Peter and I are a good example. I am more of a storyteller, while Peter is an out and out funny guy. If you hit the balance right, it works out." And if you don"t? "That"s the thing with improv, it has the capacity to fail built in," Ridenour says. "It"s like Eddie van Halen says, you might fall down the stairs, but you hope you land on your feet." At the debut show, Bauman starts the show by asking the audience for a suggestion. "Somebody give me a rumor you"ve heard about the Watson"s girl." "She"s pregnant with Reggie Miller"s baby," comes the reply. And with that, the troupe is off, falling down the stairs, hoping to land on their feet.
The Watsin"s Girl Diaries
4 stars At ComedySportz Arena. Circle City Secrets has unrolled one doozy of an improv comedy. The Watsin"s Girl Diaries featuring Mia Lee Roberts as the eponymous, ruthless and bratty spokesmodel who just wants to make commercials and go to Lotus for drinks is belly-laughing funny. Depending on whom you ask, our dear Watsin"s Girl is carrying the love child of either Reggie Miller or Mickey the Beeper King, not to mention the business hopes of her coked-to-the-gills and obviously enamored Step Daddy, played by Woody Rau. Things are going swimmingly for the Watsin"s Girl until her midsection starts to go plus size. When CC the Consumer Credit Girl steps in to steal her thunder, all as-seen-on-television hell breaks loose. Most members of the eight-member cast have a long history working together and it shows. The story is moving along rapidly with more blind curves than dead ends and opening night featured at least a half-dozen grab-your-side-and-bend-at-the-waist laugh lines. A few of the scenes bogged down, especially early in the show, but that has got to be expected when every line comes from off the cuff. And, with a comedy kick-start like Peter Dunn in the cast, the comic lulls are destined to be rare. Drop in to see how the cliffhangers resolve. Will the Watsin"s Girl be able to thwart her ambitious rival CC? Will Step Daddy be satisfied with Mrs. Watsin"s Girl or are his amorous intentions a bit more ambitious? Will the heavily medicated Dr. Forcips ever come clean about his French accent? And what about Crazy Mickey? Will he ever make it onstage? And if he does, will he really buy that baby for $1.19? The Watsin"s Girl Diaries runs Fridays at 10 p.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $10 and the show is for mature audiences. For more information, call 951-8499. ComedySportz is located at 721 Massachusetts Ave. -SC