I’ve performed in a lot of different kinds of theaters. From stately auditoriums and humble black-boxes to sticky-floored bars and ripped up holes-in-the-wall named after the landlords ongoing attempt to find new tenants (R.I.P. For Rent Theater).
This isn’t some kind of adjective-fueled humble brag; I have no illusion of pride. If you spend enough time performing improv in Chicago, you experience a variety of settings. That’s naturally what happens when the performers outnumber the “prestige” theaters a thousand to one.
You’d think with that much variety, people would try to keep performances consistent from setting to setting. But consistency, as anyone who’s gone to a “my friend’s improv show” can attest to, is not something this scene is known for. Impressively, each venue does a lot to influence the nature of any given show. This can be in the physical space (i.e., what the performers can play with) or in the proximity to the audience (who they can interact with).
But more than layout or forced audience participation, each theater has an attitude. A feel. A vibe, man. Actors treat a stage how it appears. And it influences shows in the same way.
Theaters founded by pulled-up-by-their-own-bootstraps types infuse performances with enthusiasm and energy. Dilapidated theaters in disrepair give way to shows that crumble apart, the slump-shouldered performers giving up two-thirds of the way through and resigning themselves to a functional yet shabby conclusion. I’ve been at venues where the audience only half pays attention, and players half listen to each other. I’ve been at theaters where actors are compelled to clean up after themselves, breeding a sense of ownership (or resentment), which is reflected on stage.
Recently, I was at a theater where part way through our set the entire room began to smell. Then it stunk. Soon enough, it reeked. In parallel fashion, our performance had an odd pungency to it, a sense of discomfort permeating every scene and character. Oh, we made it work, we’re goddamned International Stinger. But there certainly was a sense of, “Ooh, that’s naaasty!” emanating from participants and patrons alike.
Following the piece’s finale, the night’s emcee copped to having tracked dog crap through the whole theater. Like the end of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the would-be clues came together in the thundering succession of a mental montage. Of course! We should have known! It was dog shit all along!
As patrons carefully tiptoed out the door and we performers noticed the smears of post-digestion Purina all over the backstage area, the house manager arrived. Eyes widening and nostrils de-flaring (if nostrils can do such a thing), he began to—professionally speaking—freak out. All things considered, he actually kept his cool pretty well while dousing fluorescent bleach over every damp spot tracked in during a rainy night.
However, the emcee whose heels were the smoking gun, very quickly and very unceremoniously, peaced out. A flitting bit of eye contact was made, a callous apology submitted, and then the heavy slam of the door; the shit tracker off into the night, onto whatever madness and deranged lunacy becomes such a soulless imp.
I was shocked. How could you leave a place in such disrepair, not even an offer to help clean it? Even when you admitted yourself you were Colonel Crapper in the lavatory with the turd stick. As the poor disgruntled house manager diligently did his best to clean up, I couldn’t help but feel the apathy that permeated such a move. To be honest, I felt it in my own self as I started my car and drove away, not offering a hand or a mop despite my indignation.
Like I said. This isn’t a humble brag. I have no pride. I’m really no better than the phantom pooper. Maybe it just shows a lack of connection or care to a certain space, one that shows up in performances time and time again. It’s unfortunate, and probably part of the reason teams cycle themselves out of heavy rotation.
If there’s a takeaway, maybe we should attempt to bring consistency to the treatment of space around us. Whether it’s a feng shui connection to the shakras of architectural pressure nodes, or just the simple respect and composure to perform in the face of challenging circumstances. Maybe if we—performers, audiences, or just people—cared a bit more about our surroundings, we’d enjoy them more. If we treated places with respect, they’d feel a bit homier.
Then again, there are probably few things more like home than crapping the bed and waiting for mom and dad to clean it up.