What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Funnier | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Funnier

An up-and-coming sketch director faces his biggest fear: acting.

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On August 17, 2000, Piero Procaccini flopped. He had scored a slot in Improv-Olympic's Slugfest series of solo performances, and he was excited about his piece--a serious and, he felt, moving exploration of life after death. Because he figured that everything goes black when you die, he decided to perform the show with the lights off. He stood still in the dark while prerecorded monologues he'd performed in the character of various people speaking from beyond the grave played.

A few nervous laughs punctured the dark, then people began to walk out. Those who stayed talked through the show. Procaccini recalls feeling "a rush of emotions--fear, anger, complete disbelief. It was almost like I went through all the stages of grief within 20 minutes. . . . I almost left Chicago because of it."

A year later he mined that experience for laughs in another Slugfest show, The Worst Performance Ever, but since then he's shied away from solo performance, favoring ensemble acting and directing. One Man Show is his attempt to revive his solo career, and it's exactly what the title suggests: Procaccini wrote and directed the piece, handles the sound, and takes your ticket at the door. He's doing the lights too, but this time he's leaving them on.

Procaccini moved to Chicago from Massachusetts in November 1999 with practically no theater experience--he studied biology and neuroscience at Amherst College, where he wrote some skits for an a cappella group. But he had an almost scientific curiosity about how improv worked, so he immersed himself in Chicago's scene, taking classes at ImprovOlympic (now IO), the Second City Conservatory, and the Annoyance Theater. The Slugfest debacle wounded his pride, but it didn't kill his career: a few months afterward he began performing with Under Oath, an ImprovOlympic team, and two years later started coaching a group called the Teenage CarThrobs. (Procaccini also coached the Party!, an improv group I perform in, from May of 2004 through the spring of '05.)

In the spring of 2004 he directed his first sketch show with a group called the Applicants, then won a slot in a directing program at Second City, where he taught classes and worked as an assistant director with the touring company. That experience helped him land a gig as an assistant to the director, Sue Gillan, for a Second City E.T.C. show, From Fear to Eternity.

In the "yes, and" spirit of improvisation, Procaccini rarely turned down an offer, and by the spring of '05 he'd become extremely busy. "I was coaching maybe four or five improv teams and directing two or three sketch shows," he says. By the time students in his directing class were staging their own sketch shows, Procaccini was directing Absence of Absence, a sketch show by the Crying Diamonds that earned positive reviews in the Tribune and the Reader.

Higher-ups at Second City took notice. "If we were creating a list of the x number of sketch directors to watch for in the future, he would be one of those people," says Beth Kligerman, producer of the Second City Touring Company and Second City Theatricals. "He's on the cusp of something great."

"He has a real gift for the physical image on the stage, creating transitions, creating pictorial moments," says Anne Libera, executive artistic director of the Second City Training Center. "And he has a real understanding for that larger rhythm and music of the show, and its interplay with the audience."

Last summer Procaccini sat down with the producers at Second City and said he was going to spend the next six months concentrating on improvising and acting. "I was starting to feel really comfortable in the directing, and starting to feel a little bit scared of the acting," he says. "When I teach and when I coach, I'm always singing the praises of fighting fear and really confronting the things that are making you afraid, and I felt it was necessary to do that in my own life too."

That meant doing another one-man show. He had been thinking about how one-man shows are rarely as solitary as the name suggests--usually a few supporting actors assist the central performer. "So then, of course, I started thinking...what if it's not just one guy onstage but it's completely, really, truly a one-man show," he says. "One guy writes it, performs it, directs it, does his own lighting, does his own sound, and produces it. And that idea made me laugh, so I decided I definitely wanted to try it. It's also kind of a scary thing to do. It was one of the most challenging ideas that I came up with, so I wanted to see if it was possible."

Procaccini debuted One Man Show at Donny's Skybox Studio last Friday, performing with a light board and sound board on either side of an otherwise unadorned stage. Unlike many one-man shows, which are autobiographical or focus on a central theme, Procaccini structured his like a Second City revue, with a running gag about his various roles and how frustrating he was to work with. For one bit he played a videotape where his director self showed a series of images depicting the haplessness of his actor self: calling himself on the phone to say he's running late to rehearsal, awkwardly practicing smoking cigarettes to prepare for a bit as a detective, staging an intervention for himself while he's drunk.

There were a few glitches; at one point he forgot where he placed the handheld device he used to control the sound board and audience members had to redirect him to it. But Procaccini didn't suffer much. "I felt fantastic about it," he says. "It was really fun for me to do, and it just made me giggle throughout."

One Man Show

When: Fri 11/25, 9 PM

Where: Donny's Skybox Studio, Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells (fourth floor)

Price: $10, $8 students

Info: 312-337-3992

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Flynn.

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