News & Politics » Feature

Class Clowns

How the ImprovOlympic takes a bunch of raw recruits and whips them into lean, mean acting machines.

by

comment

She's never going to be a star. Viki Navratilova is not tall--she's maybe five-foot-five--and not waif thin. She has a shy smile and wears glasses, faded blue jeans, a T-shirt, and comfortable brown shoes. When she speaks onstage she can hardly be heard.

This is the first session of her level-one class at ImprovOlympic. Her teacher, Charna Halpern, repeatedly urges her to speak up. Navratilova tries again, but to no avail. Her fellow classmates lean forward in their seats. Those onstage with Navratilova on this night late last February swear she's been saying the wittiest things, but how can the rest of us know? Halpern shakes her head and confides, "This is gonna be a tough class."

Halpern's ImprovOlympic celebrated its 20th anniversary last summer. Graduates of the program make up significant portions of the casts and writing staffs of Saturday Night Live and Late Night With Conan O'Brien and include luminaries like Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Andy Dick, Tina Fey, and Tim Meadows. But of the 5,000 people who have gone through Halpern's six-level training program, most are more like Viki Navratilova.

Flash back 15 years, to a student who makes Navratilova seem downright noisy.

"Noah Gregoropoulos started taking classes with me in the mid-80s," Halpern says. "He was very, very shy." Gregoropoulos was a manager at U.S. Robotics who signed up at ImprovOlympic after he saw a show there in summer 1986. After the performance, Halpern took the stage and hawked her classes. "You should try it," said Gregoropoulos's girlfriend.

Gregoropoulos, Halpern says, was brilliant. In fact, she guesses, his intellect might have been part of what held him back onstage: he was afraid he was too smart, that his fellow players or the audience might not catch all his references. So he mumbled.

"I was so internalized," Gregoropoulos says. "Then when I got some laughs, I started to realize there was a benefit in somebody besides me hearing what I had to say."

"I even put him on a team, thinking that would bring him out," Halpern says.

ImprovOlympic students aspire to join teams, comprised of nine or ten people, that perform for the public at the IO theater on Clark Street just south of Wrigley Field. But Halpern's gamble didn't pay off at first. Playing with Lili Taylor and Tim Meadows, Gregoropoulos became conspicuous by his silence. "Finally I said, 'Noah, look, I know you're brilliant--you don't,'" says Halpern. "'I'm going to take you off this team because you can't be heard, and you're no good if you can't be heard. You decide when you're ready to be heard.'"

He redoubled his efforts. He learned to trust his mates onstage. He let go of his ego, his natural inclination to be embarrassed or self-conscious. "A few weeks later he called me and said, 'All right, I've decided I'm ready to be heard,'" Halpern says. She put him on Andy Dick's team, Floyd's Toothbrush, where he thrived. A few months later Gregoropoulos quit his $60,000-a-year job. He immediately went into debt and a couple of years later had to file for bankruptcy. But he had a new life. In 1996 he toured the world with a troupe called Modern Problems in Science. In 1998 he became a director at Second City and a staff writer for the sitcom Dharma & Greg. Through all this he was also a teacher at ImprovOlympic.

"Now he's one of the top performers. We never have trouble hearing him; he's got a booming voice! In fact, sometimes we wish he would shut up," Halpern says. And to think, if some wise guy with a notebook had been sitting in on one of Gregoropoulos's first classes, he'd probably have written He's never going to be a star. If Halpern could bring Gregoropoulos out of his shell, Viki Navratilova ought to be a snap.

Halpern opened a Los Angeles branch of ImprovOlympic four years ago and in October christened a brand-new theater there. She's contemplating opening a London theater in five years. After two decades of running a talent incubator cum self-help seminar, Halpern finds herself atop a small empire. It's been a long time in the making.

Now 49, Halpern spent her 20s bouncing from career to career, first teaching in a north-side high school for juvenile delinquents, then deejaying for a country-western radio station in Dixon, Illinois, and finally working for an industrial film company back in Chicago. Then she saw a couple of Second City shows and was inspired.

She took classes under Jo Forsberg at the Players Workshop and Paul Sills at Second City. In the late 70s she started an improv group called Standard Deviation. The group played at little holes-in-the-wall around town, doing two- and three-minute scenarios in response to audience members' suggestions of time and place, similar to the bits on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

At Second City she'd met David Shepherd, creator of the Compass Players, the 1950s Hyde Park actors' collective that made a name for itself as Chicago's first improv group. In the mid-70s Shepherd had invented a competition between teams of performers that he called "improv olympics." Halpern saw an opportunity.

"The ImprovOlympic was his idea, but it had never really taken off," she says. She envisioned a weekly round-robin competition between Standard Deviation, Frank Farrell's Free Shakespeare, and a third group led by Dan Castellaneta (known these days as the voice of Homer Simpson). "I figured if I was successful, I'd be able to have my own club to perform in one day."

So Halpern called Shepherd and asked him to team up. He agreed, and the two set up shop in an unused space at Second City in 1981. Soon they were not only performing but teaching improv games. Halpern and Shepherd created a slew of teams from their pool of workshop graduates, and the competition grew from one night a week to two, then four. Teams became specialized: a group of rabbis became the God Squad, some lawyers became the Court Jesters, and a team of psychiatrists became the Freudian Slippers.

After a year, Halpern and Shepherd's union unraveled. Shepherd had become too much for Halpern to bear. There was the time, for instance, that he walked through the audience asking for contributions while improvisers were playing onstage. Another time he almost started a fistfight when he interrupted a performance to ask if a certain person was in the audience. "He couldn't do one thing at a time," Halpern says. "He had to do 15 things at once. He never finished anything, and that put a lot of burden on me."

Shepherd moved to New York to teach workshops, and Halpern remained in Chicago. She ran the show alone for another year. "Then I got bored," she says. "We were just doing games all the time. Nothing happens; you don't go anywhere. You start relying on the same jokes to get you out. I wanted a challenge. I loved improvisation, I had gotten my kicks, but I thought, 'This isn't enough of a high.' At that point, I met Del Close."

Most of the 18 people in Viki Navratilova's class are novices; they're young and eager. Their stage experience, for the most part, has been in high school or college. But they've all got the itch, and when Halpern calls for the first half dozen people to take the stage for the first round of games, most of the students spring out of their seats. "OK, eight people," she says. "We'll get the rest of you up here next."

The students wait nervously onstage for Halpern to explain the first game. It's called Hot Spot. A player steps to center stage and begins to sing a few bars of a song, any song. Another player shoves the first out of the way and begins to sing another song, and so on. "Listen to what everybody's singing," Halpern says. "Don't be up there thinking about what song you're going to sing. Then you'll be paralyzed. Get right up there; you'll think of something to sing. You'll remember something that somebody sang two people ago and you'll refer to it without even intending to. That's the idea."

One guy sings a few verses of David Bowie's "Space Oddity": "Ground control to Major Tom..." A few turns later, a woman sings, "Don't love me and leave me." A few turns after that a guy sings, "Wham, bam, thank you ma'am." Halpern lets out with one of her trademark cackles. "See? You've tied two ideas together. You referred back to David Bowie--what song was 'Wham, bam, thank you ma'am' from, 'Suffragette City'?--and you brought back her idea about being loved and left. Now, when you go into the Harold you might have a scene where this jerk screws women and then just drops them."

A guy raises his hand. "What's the Harold?" he asks.

"That's what we're here for," Halpern says. "Be patient. We'll get to it."

She teaches a few more games--the Time Dash, the Pet-Peeve Rant. She finishes with the Cocktail Party. Ten players pair off and sit facing each other. One pair begins a conversation, then another pair begins a separate conversation, and the conversations begin to relate and refer back to each other. This game is a little more difficult because the whole cast is onstage for the duration. "You have to listen so you don't talk over each other," Halpern says.

The players are learning how to listen, how to rely on each other, and how to go with an idea whether they like it or not. At the beginning of a scene, each player has his or her own idea about where they are and what they're doing: one might envision the pair in a space capsule, the other might see the setting as a movie theater. But if the first says We're astronauts, the only proper response from the other is Yes, and we're heading to Mars.

"We never deny," Halpern says. "Whatever anyone suggests, all we ever have to say is 'Yes, and...'" (Her corporation is named Halpern's Yes & Productions.)

To illustrate her point she tells a story about Del Close and Joan Rivers at Second City in the early 60s. The two took the stage for a scene, and Rivers said, "I want a divorce!"

"But honey," Close said, "what about the kids?"

"We don't have any kids!" Rivers replied, and the audience roared.

Halpern shakes her head. "Joan Rivers got a big laugh," she says, "but Del was left looking like an idiot. What was he supposed to do? What kind of husband doesn't know he doesn't have any kids?"

Both players, Halpern continues, should have agreed to play along with each other's conceits. "Improv is all about agreement, saying yes to each other so you can go forward and create something together."

Halpern pauses for effect. There are some counterintuitive messages being delivered here. Halpern has to disabuse her students of the notion that the reason they're here is to get a laugh. And didn't Joan Rivers become pretty famous by being so disagreeable?

Halpern resumes. "That's why Joan Rivers was hated. Nobody wanted to play with her because--" She pauses again to find the right words. "She didn't know how to play with her friends."

In 1983, Del Close had just been fired from Second City after more than 25 years in the improv business. He'd gotten his start in 1957, when David Shepherd opened a Compass branch in Saint Louis. Close joined the start-up. So did Chicago cast members Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Antiques-business heir Jay Landesman (uncle to Broadway producer Rocco Landesman) and his wife, lyricist Fran Landesman, owned a nightclub called the Crystal Palace that was known as one of the hippest social and artistic hangouts in the country. They invited Shepherd to establish his branch there and offered him use of a block-wide mansion on Westminster Place as an office and residence for his players.

The Saint Louis cast spent just about every moment together. "We were like a swarm of gnats that formed an intelligence," Close said in Janet Coleman's book The Compass. They spent long hours in the kitchen of the Landesman mansion hashing over the previous night's scenes and, in the process, laying down the principles of improv comedy.

One day, Close referred to an unsuccessful scene from the night before. "You know," Close said to Nichols, "I had a flat tire. When I asked you to get the jack, you said no. If you'd have just gotten the jack and held the light for me, we could have fixed the car and gone on our way! If you'd have just said yes." A lightbulb went on over three heads, and the first of the Westminster Place Kitchen Rules was invented: no reality brought to the stage by a player can be negated or denied by another player.

The other two main Kitchen Rules hold that players can select from an infinite number of choices to further a scene (it's best to take the "active" or imaginative choice) and that the player is actually the character (in other words, the player must act and react to a situation the way he or she would in real life).

But the more time Close spent around the man who created the Compass, the more he came to loathe him. David Shepherd came from a wealthy New York family that was related to the Vanderbilts. He'd studied at Harvard and Columbia, he'd gone to the Sorbonne on a Fulbright, he'd taught English in India, and he'd come to Chicago with an inheritance in his pocket. Shepherd had become a Marxist in college and saw himself as a pied piper who would bring theater to the working classes. He viewed professional actors as an exploitative capitalist class. Who needed professional actors when anyone could climb onstage and create scenes straight out of his imagination?

Shepherd and Close shared histories of family trauma: Shepherd's mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia from the time he was a toddler, and Close had witnessed his father's suicide. In spite of this--or perhaps because of it--he found no common ground with Shepherd. He saw Shepherd's heavy-handed bourgeois bashing as tedious and let him know it. Peace was maintained only because Shepherd left Saint Louis for long periods to visit New York City, trying to drum up financing for a planned Compass branch there.

After the Saint Louis company folded, Close's career blossomed. In 1961 he joined Second City. He put out a comedy album, How to Speak Hip. In '63 or '64 he left Chicago to work with the San Francisco-based troupe the Committee, which frequently performed in Los Angeles. Close appeared on My Mother the Car and Get Smart, and he helped found an LA branch of the Committee. In California he also started experimenting with a new kind of improvisation: by using games and establishing relationships between characters--with players creating everything off the top of their heads--Close would build not just a series of good jokes but an entire story, a dream world.

The downside of this new form of improvisation was that it had no boundaries. Whenever players tried it they tended to go on until someone said, "That's enough!" "At the time long-form improvisation was unteachable," Halpern says. "It was just this long thing that went on forever and ever. People would say, 'Close, you're crazy! That thing'll never work.' But he always had this goal to try to make it work."

One day Close, some other Committee players, and pianist Bill Mathieu were fiddling around with this new toy. Close asked, "What should we call it?" This was soon after the Beatles had arrived in the United States, and a reporter had asked George Harrison what he called his haircut. Harrison replied, "Arthur." Mathieu, riffing on Harrison's joke, told Close, "Aw, call it Harold." "All right," Close said. "My life's work is Harold."

While he was experimenting with the Harold he had also been developing insatiable tastes for alcohol and heroin, and by the late 60s Close's ambitions had been reduced to staying alive each day. Over the next decade he'd get second chances galore, but he'd blow them thanks to paranoia and a hair-trigger temper. He returned to Second City to teach and direct in 1977, but he ran afoul of Second City honcho Bernie Sahlins almost from the start. Second City's philosophy is that improvisation is a tool for players to invent scenes that they eventually script. Close insisted that Sahlins recognize his long-form improvisation as a stand-alone art form, something audiences would pay to see, an idea Sahlins pooh-poohed.

Meanwhile, Close missed few opportunities to bash Shepherd and anyone affiliated with him. "I'd heard rumors that Del had been knocking me in his classes," Halpern says. She wasn't surprised; Close by then had a well-earned reputation for vilifying anyone who offended him.

But Halpern was curious, and in 1983 she went to see a Halloween performance Close was giving with one of his Second City classes at an art gallery. "He started it off by doing this invocation," she says. "It looked as if he was invoking demons. It was very scary. I was very New Age spiritual at the time; I would invoke white light to protect people and so forth. I was angry that he would do such a dangerous thing. I went up to him after the performance and said, 'You have a lot of nerve, invoking demons where people aren't protected.' He said, 'I protected the building,' and I said, 'You can't do that.' He said, 'Yes I can.'"

Halpern huffed and walked out of the room. "I was so angry that he was such a creep," she says. "On top of that I knew he hated me anyway, so I was just like, 'Screw him!'"

A few months later, Halpern ran into Close at CrossCurrents, the late, lamented bar and theater at Belmont and Wilton. Close, who had been fired by Sahlins, was there to rent a room where he could teach a class on his own. He'd become notorious for forgetting people's names and faces.

"This was at the time I was desperate to do something new with improvisation," Halpern says. "I thought, 'He's not going to remember our confrontation at the art gallery and I need help, so I'll see what I can steal from this guy.'" She offered him $200 and some pot to teach one class for her.

"Can I do anything I want?" he asked.

"Sure!" Halpern said.

Close paused and said, "Can I invoke demons?"

Halpern turned scarlet. "Yeah," she said. "You can invoke demons if you want."

"All right," Close said. "I'll do it."

"It turned out to be really cool," Halpern says. "I was a student there too. I performed, and he gave me good compliments and good notes. We went for coffee afterward. I said, 'There's got to be more for improvisation. That's why I wanted you to come.' He said, 'Oh, you're not a twit after all.'"

Close volunteered to teach another class. This time he explained the basic concepts of the Harold. "It's a series of scenes, games, and monologues that connect and weave together to create a story," says Halpern. "It's pattern recognition, something that happens once, and then it returns and it's funny. Each time it returns it takes on additional meaning and importance. When it comes back a third time it's hilarious."

"Let's plug in some of my games with your games," Halpern suggested after the second class. They hashed out a format including an opening game--a Pet-Peeve Rant, for instance--during which players could find the theme for each Harold. They figured out a way to use one of David Shepherd's old games, the Time Dash, in which the same characters revisit the same situation at different ages. The more Halpern and Close talked, the more excited they got.

They started to teach the Harold at CrossCurrents. "People in the classes started saying, 'Oh yeah, I can see it!'" says Halpern. "Rather than playing these games, these single scenes where something sometimes happens but there's no form, we had a real thing here, something that lasts about a half hour, with scenes returning and ideas connecting."

Halpern helped Close straighten out his personal affairs. He opened a checking account and moved into a decent apartment. Soon after that he started auditioning. He scored roles in plays at the Goodman and in more than a dozen movies. One day, a few years after Close and Halpern had made ImprovOlympic a major player, he ran into an old friend. "They knew each other from when Del was a junkie and crazy," Halpern says. "This guy said, 'Close, my god. You've gone sane!'"

Of the 18 people who started with Navratilova in her level-one class, 15 have continued on through higher levels. "I didn't know what I was doing" in that first class, Navratilova says. "I had taken a Second City class before that. They're more into exercises, discipline, and good improv habits. Here, Charna expects you to have discipline right off the bat. Her classes are geared toward experimentation. She lets you go as far as you want to. Since there was less limitation, I felt I could branch out more."

Navratilova's parents came to the United States from what is now the Czech Republic. They met here, married, then had her in 1976. "I was always into the Three Stooges when I was a kid," Navratilova says. "I always thought writing comedy would be a really cool job. But I never thought about it seriously as a career."

She graduated from Loyola University with a degree in computer science, sneaking in some art classes despite her mother's disapproval. Even after graduating, she'd hole herself up in her room and paint to let off steam. She took a job with Blue Meteor, an application service provider specializing in Unix and computer security. "Then a friend of mine at work told me about these improv classes she was taking.

"In the computer industry you tend to have this small world of people that use, say, Linux, and you don't even talk all that much to people who use Windows. It's so hypersegmented. But here there are professional actors as well as accountants. Normally, I wouldn't have met people like them. When you're in class, all that stuff that you put up in front of you to protect yourself, like your status and your profession, just goes away because it's irrelevant. It's never really talked about; you just do your thing onstage."

Between her class at Second City and her first one at ImprovOlympic, the company she worked for folded. "After Blue Meteor, I decided to do more with my life," she says. "I decided to focus more on myself. I started exercising and paying more attention to what I was eating and getting nicer clothes. Then I came here. This place has changed me."

Although knowledgeable in her field--she often conducted seminars on computer security--Navratilova was unsure of herself. "When I was giving talks, I always had the assumption that everyone out there knew better than I did. I now have done so many strange things in front of people I don't know that I don't think I'd be nervous giving talks anymore.

"Overall, I'm definitely a calmer person," she says. "Painting was good for venting, for therapy. But it's a very introspective, secluded thing. Here, you're out with other people. You're having an effect on them and they're having an effect on you."

Navratilova recently got a job working at the University of Chicago in computer security and systems administration. She hasn't told her mother that she's studying improv. "I figure she would tell me I was just wasting my time."

When her partnership with Close started, Halpern banked on his Second City reputation to draw students. But it didn't.

"Nobody cared about us in the beginning," she says. "It was a big struggle to convince anyone what we were doing was art. But people of like minds, people who wanted to do what we were doing, would slooowly start to come over. It was very underground, word-of-mouth. It was hard even to get a reviewer. When we did get one, they would go interview Bernie Sahlins and Bernie would say, 'Nah, it's not art.'" Sahlins had never seen any of ImprovOlympic's shows.

But as time went by, classes began to fill up. In 1983 Aaron Freeman, an alum of both Second City and ImprovOlympic, put CrossCurrents on the map with his "Council Wars" routine. By the mid-80s students were coming to Chicago from all over the country to study with Close and Halpern. "I went from having 2 teams to 7 teams to 12 teams, and then it went through the ceiling," Halpern says.

Halpern set up house teams filled with the most promising talent to play weekends. The first was Baron's Barracudas, with Joel Murray (brother of Bill), sitcom actor J.J. Johnson, screenwriter Steve Burroughs, and Kim "Howard" Johnson, author of several books on Monty Python's Flying Circus (he also helped Halpern and Close write their definitive tome, Truth in Comedy). The Barracudas were followed by Grime and Punishment, a team that included recent Saturday Night Live regular Tim Meadows, Annoyance Productions boss Mick Napier, and actor Rich Label.

Label and Meadows had been doing improv sets in Detroit when Close caught their act one weekend and invited them to come to Chicago to study. They jumped at the offer. The education of Label was a particular triumph for Halpern. He played as if the audience were waiting with bated breath for him to display his enormous talent. He was, simply put, "an asshole," she says.

So she told him what she thought. "I said, 'No one wants to play with you. It's sad because you are very good and very smart. You have the choice to be either the best or the worst.'" He got the gist.

Label and Napier went on to start Metraform, the precursor to Annoyance Theatre, which hit it big with The Real Live Brady Bunch in the early 90s. Label then spent eight years with Second City, eventually becoming a creative director with its corporate theater arm. Now he runs his own corporate theater business, performing and emceeing at sales meetings, trade shows, and conferences.

In 1988, an aimless 22-year-old went to see an ImprovOlympic show with his older sister. "I had no direction," Kevin Dorff says. "I had a menial job. I was going nowhere. Before I saw the Harold, I had never been involved in theater." But Dorff was so impressed that his sister offered to pay for his class. "That would be the biggest turning point of my life," Dorff says.

Halpern put Dorff on a team after four weeks. He played with Jon Favreau (who wrote the 1996 movie Swingers) and Armando Diaz (who now runs a long-form improv workshop in New York). "It was thrilling," Dorff says. He'd sit in on as many classes as he could and then go out with classmates for hours afterward, drinking beer and talking about improv.

"Charna created a space for us to be fully committed to our ideas and not fear failure," Dorff says. "She taught us it was OK to fail, that sometimes success comes from failure. She didn't ask us to be funny or to be stars; she only asked us to commit to other people's ideas."

Dorff performed with Blue Velveeta from 1989 to 1991. After that he did an independent improv revue at Live Bait Theater until 1993. He played at Second City from '93 through the summer of 2000, when he was hired to write for Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

These days Yes & Productions is working with producer David Salzman (In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and SNL writer Adam McKay on a TV pilot. The ImprovOlympic corporate theater business is booming. People mention Halpern in the same breath as her mentors Forsberg and Sills. "I have a house that improv built," she says. "I want for nothing. I work when I want to work. I have the funniest friends in the world. I'm the luckiest girl in the world.

"Nothing works out the way you plan it," she goes on. "That's another reason why improvisation is helpful in your life: 'Life's what happens when you're busy making other plans,' as John Lennon said."

In the mid-90s Close began to exhibit signs of failing health. Halpern noticed him wheezing and coughing. More and more, he'd complain of shortness of breath. In January of 1999 a doctor diagnosed him with emphysema and told him he had a year to live. When he reported this to Halpern, he added his own prognosis. "I think that's optimistic," he said.

On a Friday morning in March, Close called Halpern. "You'd better drive me to class," he said. "I'm hallucinating. I'm seeing all these colors." He'd spent a significant portion of his life buzzed, so hallucinations weren't exactly a novel experience. Still, he sensed something was amiss.

Halpern convinced him to let her take him to Illinois Masonic. Close received inhalation therapy, and doctors thought the crisis was over but advised him to stay overnight for observation. He ate dinner and sat up in his bed. Halpern left the hospital thinking she'd take him home the next day.

Instead she got a call early Saturday morning. In the middle of the night, nurses had found Close barely alive. He was now hooked up to a respirator.

Halpern dashed to the hospital. "He could only communicate with his eyes," she says. "Tears were coming down his face. I said, 'You don't want this, do you?'"

Close indicated no.

"I said, 'You want this taken out?'"

He indicated yes.

"I said, 'Even if it means you're going to die?'"

Again, Close indicated yes.

Halpern called the attending physician. "You realize what you're saying, don't you?" the doctor asked. "This is it."

"Yes," Halpern replied.

"You should say your good-byes now," the doctor said.

Close wrote farewell notes to Halpern. "I love you," said one. Others said "Death is not the enemy" and "Don't let me die on their terms." Then they took the tube out of his throat.

"He choked. Then he coughed. And then he started yelling at the doctors, saying he wanted to eat. I was expecting him to die. The nurses fluffed his pillows and he got up! I didn't know what was going on; it was so surreal."

The doctors called in Dr. Julie Goldstein, Illinois Masonic's chief of clinical ethics. She minced no words. "Let's get on the same page here," she said. "Do you think you're dying?"

"Yes," Close said.

"Are you dying anytime soon?"

"Yes."

"OK," Goldstein said, "with that in mind, what would you like to do?"

Close pondered for a moment. "I want a party for my 65th birthday," he said at last.

Halpern scurried to make arrangements. From Los Angeles, Bill Murray offered to pay for the bash. One of the hospital social workers was also a pagan high priest who promised to perform a ceremony. Close's friends and former students booked flights. On Sunday, wearing a red-striped bathrobe over his hospital gown and with an oxygen cannula in his nose, Close ate shrimp, drank white chocolate martinis, and cut into a huge birthday cake. His former Second City colleagues Peter Boyle and Alan Arkin sent telegrams. A couple of saxophone players serenaded him. A camera crew from Comedy Central taped him as he addressed the Upright Citizens Brigade.

"Del sat there in his little wheelchair and everyone came up to him and talked to him and a few people made speeches," Halpern says. Even Close's old nemesis Bernie Sahlins showed up. "Admit it," Close demanded, "long-form improvisation is an art form." Sahlins, much to Halpern's disgust, said, "For today, Del, it's an art form."

When Halpern and Close were alone, he asked her to bequeath his skull to the Goodman for use in any future productions of Hamlet. Within a few hours, Del Close was dead.

It's a steamy Tuesday night in July. The Del Close Theater is packed with a loud and demonstrative crowd--most of the people here know each other from class. But a quiet couple sits at a table directly in front of the stage. They listen intently as Viki Navratilova thanks them for coming to see her on the first night she'll perform the Harold before a live audience.

This is the first-ever performance of the Lottery Show, the brainchild of Alex Fendrich and Andy St. Clair, members of the team People of Earth. The concept is to mix veteran improvisers with rookies. One student each from levels one through five has been chosen by lottery (Navratilova represents level three) and will perform each Tuesday night for eight weeks with a revolving cast of old hands.

The veterans chosen for tonight's performance are top-notch: Susan Messing, Liz Allen, Peter Gwinn, and T.J. Jagodowski. They bound onstage, grinning broadly, acknowledging cheers. In contrast the rookies seem to tiptoe onstage wide-eyed. Gwinn steps out to center stage and asks the audience for a theme. A woman yells out "Planet of the Apes!" and the Harold begins.

The opening game is a lineup, each of the players swinging his or her arms like a simian. "I look forward to the day when I won't have to swing from trees," the first player says. "I look forward to the day when I won't have to hit a female over the head and drag her into the woods to have my way with her," another says. A third adds, "I look forward to the day when I won't have to fling my feces at people."

Navratilova is one of the last to speak. She strains to be heard, her voice still thin and reedy. "I look forward to submitting myself to someone stronger than me." She earns a good laugh with her reference to the bombastic Charlton Heston line from the original Apes movie.

Many of the scenes that follow center on evolution. Navratilova takes the stage for the fourth scene. She assumes a martial arts crouch, her hands raised, poised to chop. Jagodowski plays opposite her as a sensei. He speaks quietly, patiently, telling her she's ready to do all the things he's taught her. "Now," he says, "we can fight." She reaches behind her and mimics flinging her feces at him. The crowd roars.

In the two-thirds of the show that remains, the martial arts subtext is revisited a few times--a reference here, a joke there. But Navratilova doesn't take the stage again save for a couple of walk-ons. Mostly she sits or kneels on the side of the stage, her lips tight, watching the proceedings. When the half-hour performance ends, she joins the vets and the rookies onstage and takes her first bow before a cheering audience.

"Tonight was so awesome," she says as she plops into an easy chair in the upstairs space that's a cross between a greenroom and a playhouse. Her name was picked out of a hat only days ago. She met with tonight's players only yesterday. They practiced a little last night, then warmed up in the alley a few minutes before the performance.

The idea for her martial arts scene came to her in the alley behind the theater. "We were warming up and I was thinking of cool things to do," Navratilova says. "Somebody mentioned something that made me think of kung fu movies. Then I thought about this guy I'd met over the weekend. He was wearing a full kung fu outfit, satin with big buttons and everything.

"I didn't get onstage as much as the other people, but that was OK," Navratilova says. "I'd been saying to myself, 'Be strong. Do something bold.'" By keeping her mind clear and focused on simple rules, Navratilova turned a random thought into one of the most important pieces of tonight's Harold.

The theater is dark. Halpern walks through, jangling her keys, making sure the doors are locked, her dog Chief shuffling beside her. Tonight she's feeling wistful. It's been more than two years since Close's death.

A couple of Halpern's students claim to have seen Close since his demise, one backstage in the second-floor theater, the other in the first-floor lobby. When she heard these reports, Halpern responded: "Why hasn't he come to me?"

So tonight she stops in the middle of the second-floor theater, hands on her hips, and says out loud, "Del? Here's your chance. I'm alone. If you want to come to me, now's the time."

She waits. Chief yawns. Halpern decides that Close isn't going to come to her. On her way out of the theater, she passes an urn high up on a shelf to the right of the stage. It's filled with Close's ashes. A couple of hours before he died, Halpern had asked him where he wanted his ashes placed. "I want to be in the Del Close Theater," he said. "I want to be affecting the work."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre J. Jackson.

Add a comment