Revenge of the Festivirus

I’m wondering if we should have invited the Centers for Disease Control to CSzRVA’s Improv Festivus 2013.  In the 40-ish hours since the last partygoer left the theatre early Sunday morning, all the talk on Facebook has been about who’s been brought down by the bug now known as the Festivirus (credit to Micah Edwards, who avoided the bug by fleeing town early, for the name).  Had we known ahead of time, some CDC researcher could have written a paper on the propagation of a virus in a small community that voluntarily locked itself into a confined space for the better part of 60 hours.

However, I’m not here to talk about the Festivirus so much — mostly because I got the lower-quality strain and didn’t get much sicker than alternating chills and overheating — but also because this was Festivus weekend, not Festivirus weekend!

And man, was it worth it.  This weekend goes right up there with my Jeopardy! audition experience as one of the very best things I did in 2013.  This was more fun than one person should be allowed to have in that short of a timeframe.

Before the weekend started, I was scheduled only to do shows on Saturday — so I was looking forward to watching and learning a bit on Thursday and Friday before running tech for the middle Saturday show.

That changed quickly — due to a schedule mixup, we lost our Thursday tech so I took that shift… and due to extenuating circumstances, one of our Friday troupes had to cancel, so the shuffling to fill that spot put one of our Friday techs on stage, so I took that shift.  All of a sudden, I was teching three shows and serving as stage manager for another.  I did say I wanted to be involved. 🙂

From here, I’m going to abandon narrative — so much happened that I’m just going to list some of the moments I’ll remember.  And it’s an incomplete list – as I process 12 hours of improv across three nights (plus the chance to sit in on a couple of seminars because the check-in table was in the same room — did I mention I spent parts of Friday and Saturday working check-in?), I can’t possibly give you play-by-play.  Instead, here are my highlights…

* Thursday: about 20 minutes before showtime, Zach Arnold was trying to move an electrical cable that was partially loose from the wall in the back right corner of the theatre.  Somehow, in doing so, the plug for the tech booth came undone.  Down went the lights, sound, printer (being used for show notes for the host) and Internet.  Fortunately, anything that can be unplugged can be re-plugged.  It took a few minutes for everything to come online, but we got there.  I haven’t decided which of my new grey hairs I’m dedicating to Zach yet…

* Thursday: CSzRVA’s new high-school medium-form troupe (you read that right), TBA, made their first appearance — as the first troupe playing Festivus.  I loved their intro, and not only because I was part of it, but because it was original — they wanted the tech to be the voice of their “teacher” calling roll, by way of introducing the players.  After a terrific opening set, Ellen Abernathy (who hosted) went to remove a stray plastic snowflake that was in a bad position.  The snowflake, however, was held in place by painter’s tape, so instead of the snowflake coming down, the item it was attached to came down.  That’d be the big ComedySportz sign over the stage.  I’d make a “bringing down the house” joke, but those are old… Come to think of it, I think Ellen said Zach asked her to get the snowflake.  Hmmm…

* Thursday: West End Comedy finally played at CSz.  And it was fun — but the set did go a bit long, because of the guy who timed it… oh, wait, that was me.  Yes, you see, at an improv show/festival, the tech booth keeps time.  For our event, the time limit was 20 minutes (which we’d let go a couple of minutes as needed).  This was my first night doing tech for a festival event, so I wasn’t fully confident about when to blackout the set… and they’d told me they wanted to do four games.  The fourth started just before the 20-minute mark.  So I let it go — fortunately, this was one of two shows where we could go long (the other was the Saturday finale) — and they did a game of Stimulus/Response around getting to a mysterious item in a safe deposit box.  Of course, there was only one way that scene was going to end.  WE’s Matt Scott “opened” the box, and said “It’s…” — *blackout*.  Yeah, we were NEVER going to find out what was in the box (UPDATE: see my note at the end of this post)…

* Friday: Mostly a blur, honestly.  Between check-in, being on the badge assembly line (I was “typing-and-printing”), and saying “hi” to new friends and old, I wasn’t sure if I was coming or going… but Zach (hmmm…) and I got our just desserts.  Literally, actually, as the ladies of Safety Shorts (representing NYC’s Magnet Theatre) bought us mint-chip ice cream from Gelati Celesti up the block.  And as I type this, I just realized I never returned the favor.  That’s ungentlemanly of me.  The next time they come down, I have to do something about that.

* Friday: Speaking of Safety Shorts, they put on a riotous set during the early show… so much so that I could not possibly explain why Kate de Longpré wound up thanking me for blacking them out just when I did… other than to say these are the moments that you can only get at a live improv show.  I couldn’t provide a coherent explanation.

* Friday: It hit me sometime on Friday that with the two shows I’d picked up, I’d run tech for CSz’s high schoolers, our iProv and Overtime Improv house teams, and Safety Shorts (Kate was part of CSzRVA’s 8:31 Adult Rec League before she went to NYC).  There’s one bit of common ground there — all of them are a part of Thomas George’s legacy, and before the start of the weekend, I wasn’t supposed to do tech for any of them.  I don’t believe in any of the things one might think about that kind of coincidence.  But for a moment or two, it did make me wonder.  I know how happy Thomas was when the idea of my coming back to CSzRVA came up (back in the fall of 2012)… maybe in the less rational side of my brain, I’ll let myself think this was his way of showing it.

* Friday Aftershow, or “Beware Of Falling Techs”: So the festival had booked the Beach House at Innsbrook for our post-show party.  I should have known things were strange when the first face I saw was of a wrestler I’ve known for more than a decade, who was the bouncer for the evening.  If nothing else, I felt rather safe knowing that I knew the bouncer.  Well, that turned out to be somewhat mistaken.  The room we were in had an island bar in one corner, where I placed an order for an appetizer because it’d been a long day.  When I went back to see if my order had arrived — it had — I stepped back, and misjudged where the island ended and the one-step drop began.  The bad news — gravity took over and I took a rather ungraceful pratfall (almost literally, as I might have landed on my prat).  The good news (for me, at least) — ComedyWorx Raleigh’s Paul Barrett was standing right in my path, so instead of landing through the glass-and-wood door behind him, I just bodychecked him REALLY hard (he, the door, and I were all OK).  That makes twice in the last two months where (1) something bad happened to me and (2) Paul was in the right place at the right time.  I’m not sure what that means, but I can’t complain about fate’s choice of my good-luck charm, I suppose…

* Saturday: One of my check-in shifts was during Kim Thurston’s musical-comedy workshop Saturday morning.  Now I don’t do improv, and you do NOT want to hear me sing, but even I learned a few things while watching — my point?  I have two.  One – Kim’s an awesome teacher (that doesn’t go far enough, she’s an awesome person, too).  Two – if she teaches a workshop at Festivus 2014, think about signing up.

* Saturday: Stage-managing a ComedySportz-formatted show is fairly straightforward – the show has its natural rhythm, the players know it (and know when to report to the backstage area), and all I need to do is tell them which way the doors open and which wing to enter from.  It was also my first chance to talk to Tara DeFrancisco, and (as I’d been on check-in for part of her seminar) my second to watch just how gracious she is… something we’d all get a vivid reminder of in a few hours’ time.  For now, though, it was just fun to help facilitate what was a terrific CSz Tournament-style event.  Of course, the rush afterwards to switch from stage manager to tech (which got delayed because my relief as stage manager, Kelly Scruggs, had to wait for Raleigh to finish scraping three-hour-old blue facepaint off before she could change out of her CSzRVA gear as she’d played that show) was a blur, but as far as I could tell, we got the 8pm show off somewhere close to 8pm.  That was something.

* Saturday: After the ongoing blur that was the 8pm show — a blur that might have had also been caused by the fact that I was at the low point of my Festivirus — I was able to wind down and watch the closing show of the evening.  And all I can say is this: if you were there, no words are needed.  If you weren’t, I’m going to have a hard time making this make sense.  But the last set of the last show of Improv Festivus 2013 was the best closing moment we could have asked for, full stop.  Tara did the format that iO Chicago told her wouldn’t work — and it’s continued to not work for 2 years, and has “not worked” so well that it won an award from the Chicago Tribune!  It’s called defrancisCO, and it’s all about her CO-star.  In Chicago, she asks iO students and non-performers to put their names into a hat, and she pulls one name to do a set.  In Richmond, there weren’t any students and a scarcity of non-performers, so she asked anyone to throw their Festivus lanyard (or ID, if they didn’t have a lanyard) into a bowl.  Yes, I chickened out.  Full disclosure.  But I digress.  The performer whose name came out of the bowl was Jenny Sappington, of Harrisonburg’s No Strings Attached.  What happened in the next half hour was the kind of magic you go to improv shows hoping to see.  You see, Jenny was now Tara’s CO-star for a long-form set.  Jenny, before Saturday night, had never done a long-form set.  You would never have known it.  It was improv at its best — not only because it was real and compelling and funny and serious and tragic and wonderful — but because Tara used her experience to gently guide the performance in such a way that Jenny shone.  This was Jenny’s moment, and Tara made absolutely sure where the focus was going to be.   It was a three-scene montage, and I know Dave Gau up in tech let it run VERY long, but it was the easiest call he made all weekend.  The set got a well-deserved standing ovation, I heard several people say it was the best set ever on our stage, and I am not about to argue with them.  If you know me, you know how much improv I’ve watched, and I can’t think of a better moment.  Word is that there might be video coming (at least two cameras shot the evening).  I hope so.  I want to see this one again.  And if you’re in Chicago on a Monday night, think about stopping by iO’s Del Close Theatre to check defrancisCO out for yourself.

* Saturday Afterparty: So once the room was cleared of chairs and we got set up for the afterparty (this time, at the theatre, so I didn’t have a bar to fall off of), I finally got a moment to go over and tell Jenny just how awesome I thought her set with Tara was.  When I got to her, she had a huge grin on her face (no surprise there)… but I noticed something when I started the conversation.  I was the only one talking.  Yep.  She was flying so high off the emotion of the set she’d done that she was actually unable to form words.  Fortunately, she later regained the power of speech and I enjoyed a long conversation with her and her other half, the man they call D.   But that moment, seeing someone so incredibly happy… that was the idea, wasn’t it?

And there are so many people I left out — the kids of Cliché (under Jeff Clevenger’s expert tutelage), the New Orleans and DC ComedySportz teams (who were very patient with a first-time stage manager), all of our visitors from Raleigh (three troupes!), Toronto’s TOM (short for “Tomes” because only part of the troupe could get to Richmond), the Coalition Theatre’s teams, Purple Monkey Dishwater (the improv duo who met at an air-sex competition) (really), Nashville Improv Company (and Lacie Madison’s hybrid lanyard, because we messed it up twice, but if we folded the two pieces just right, it looked like we knew what we were doing!), and there are certainly more I missed because I never get every item in a list…

By my count, it’s 361 days until we get to do this again.  Can’t wait.  For now, though, Happy Festivus… and a very happy of whatever flavor of holiday you celebrate… 🙂

UPDATE: Maybe it was an engagement ring in the improvised safe-deposit box — I hear Matt popped the question yesterday (on his birthday, no less!) and got a “yes”.  Now that’s the way to end a Festivus post, right?

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Author: Rob Hoffmann

Occasional blogger, full-time computer techie, radio producer (basketball, mostly), generally nice person (if you ask me).

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