I was sitting at the kitchen table with my 20-year-old son, gnawing on a sandwich.
“I’ve got that Fringe improv thing on Tuesday, y’know,” I mentioned.
The kid looked at me, studying.
“Yeah,” he said, “I don’t know what you were thinking, either.”
Forty eight hours later, as I was pouring apple juice into a prop bottle of Jack Daniel’s, I was still wondering what I was thinking. I was about to step on stage with a veteran actress and no script to try to hold my amateurish own for about an hour.
It had been two months since Lou Harry had pitched me the idea. The 2012 IndyFringe show he’d concocted with John Thomas was devious and brilliant: Going...Going...Gone an improvisational one-act play about three characters, one of whom is dead.
The theater becomes an auction house for the show, the very same auction house owned by the late Ed. (A fictional Ed. I was very much alive during the show, thanks.) Actor A steps onto the stage to say a few words about the departed while Actor B reveals that there’s stuff left behind, and it must be sold. It’s in the will.
Now comes the tricky part — the audience.
The crowd has been given play money. Some have a little, some have a bunch — just like in real life, no? They bid on the items. They buy the items. And the actors have no idea what the items are.
Everything’s in boxes, covered and concealed. The actors are responsible for quite a bit here: not only do they have to construct their relationship to one another and to the deceased, they’ve also have to create backstory for the bits of garage sale flotsam and jetsam, improvising dialogue on the fly.
John and Lou had held workshops where we talked about stuff that was kicking around our homes — stuff we’d gotten rid of, stuff we’d never part with for sentimental reason.
“Ed,” said Lou, “we’re pairing you with Karen Irwin. It could be really, really explosive.”
Irwin is the queen of fringe. Google her. Trust me. She’s been entertaining this town for years. She’s incredibly talented, imposingly charismatic — and sometimes a little dangerous.
I’d run into Karen before and found her to be disarmingly direct in a way that some folks find inappropriate — and I’m sure some men find terrifying. Me, I’ve been around showbiz and art-types all my life. My definition of 'normal’ is... well, I don’t have one yet.
We met twice at a coffee shop at 54th Street and College Avenue to talk about our characters. We went with the brother/sister bit: Dad was an ass, I took care of him for three years in hospital and hospice while Karen was living on an ashram or something. I was put-upon-Eddie-junior, she was a now-divorced serial bride with a penchant for mysticism and certain recreational drugs.
Our second meeting was a dive into our personal histories. I told her how my wife and I met, how my relationship with my dad had been strained after he and Mom split and he remarried, how my brother and I seemed to have very little in common.
She told me about her acting background, her late fiancée, and then she went down a road that really grabbed the attention of our fellow al fresco Sunday brunchers. Her eyes got big, very big.
“Jesus Christ,” I rumbled. “You’re freaking me out. You look like Squeaky Fromme or something.”
“There were a few years where about a third of the IU medical school saw my cervix,” she announced in a loud, clear voice that had clearly channeled Janis Joplin in a one-woman show. I heard the legs of metal chairs scraping across the concrete patio. Some folks were turning to get a better listen, some folks were hiding the children.
Karen explained how she’d been a training subject for pelvic exams. She instructed wanna-be OB/GYNs on what was creepy and what was comfortable: “You don’t say lie down, you say lie back; you tell me what you’re checking, not what you’re feeling — I don’t care about your feelings... ”
It was Karen’s mission to make both physicians and patients understand that the exam didn’t have to be painful or weird. It was a monologue delivered with passion and grace. My mind was sufficiently blown. And I’ve never seen a waitress give a two-patron table more attention than ours.
Okay, I thought. Game on.
Five minutes before the show, I stood backstage, shaking my arms and trying to somehow wring the tension out of my torso. I’d done improv before, done stand-up comedy for years, done radio for decades, but this was Out There. The room was full — a feat for a Tuesday — and then the lights went up and the lunacy began.
Karen’s character was all chakras and sunshine and trippiness, a Gracie-Allen-on-acid free spirit who wanted to give away the goods and sell hugs. My character was, well, problematic. I was going for a Paul Giamatti type, but my face is structured so that world-weary can easily look angry. My Ed Junior became something more like Giamatti playing the Ed Norton character in Fight Club.
We worked it out — some moments were flat, some moment were transcendent, and I know from friends that the thing played better than we thought. We sold trophies, cookware, even a Buttmaster — the Thighmaster’s weird cousin. Still, in the heat of the action, there is one moment that I’d really, really like to get back.
Karen’s auctioning of hugs led to an offer to take off her bra — which led to an offer for me to take off my shirt.
For 70 bucks.
That offer came from my wife. Some were in on the joke, knowing who she was. Some weren’t. Didn’t matter.
It was a great line. The room exploded. We began to play with it. Karen pulled off my tie. I turned my back to the crowd and began to unbutton my shirt.
And then, all of my reservations about this thing zeroed in on my stomach.
I have a scar — a weird, four-inch purple hack into my belly that’s evidence of a medical event that saw me in very bad trouble. I won’t bore you with the gore, but genetics visited upon me a condition only very old men should see. That scar’s not even a year old. It’s a reminder, a daily look-in-the-mirror reminder of something really, really awful. I’m certain my wife doesn’t even notice it anymore.
And it was all I could think about. My character was gone. I was just stupid, vulnerable Ed, an amateur among real, committed actors; just another hack, another dilettante. I was panicked. Mortified.
And then, of all things, my cell phone rang.
I’d arranged with John Thomas beforehand that he could call me on my cell if he felt any moment needed some kind of Bob-Newhart-style one-sided-dialogue punch. We exchanged a few words — and then I got out of it.
“Phone-in bid! Two hundred bucks to keep my shirt on!” I announced.
The ruse worked for a moment — but then I could feel the crowd’s disappointment.
We went on. We sold. I found my character again. I stood taller. I chugged my fake whiskey for laughs. Karen received huge roars of approval for her loopy takes. We finished. We exhaled. We got through.
After the show, over beers at a little bar up the street, Karen deconstructed the moment. “You know, if you’d taken your shirt off, that would have sent the thing into the stratosphere. Nudity always wins.”
She was right. I told her she was right. That’s why she’s an actor, and I’m still simply a comic. Many comedians often hold a few select cards very, very close. Actors never get that luxury.
And I’m not ready to show my cervix to strangers yet, y’know?
A former stand-up comedian, Ed Wenck is a writer and host of Indy’s Afternoon News on 93 WIBC.
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