I have been dragging my feet about trying standup comedy for months now for the same reason most people never try it: it seems terrifying. Except unlike most people I have actually tried performing comedy. In college I was in our campus improv troupe for three years and competed in the College Improv Tournament. I was also the Editor in Chief of our humor and satire newspaper. I know how to write jokes, punch up ideas, and play with audience expectations. But for some reason I just can’t muster the courage to try out standup. I am scared that the audience will boo me or, even worse, sit in silence and shake their heads.
I think it’s this fear of the audience that’s been holding me back. To perform standup is to implicitly believe that you’re funny and that your jokes are worth telling. Am I really funny enough that a group of strangers should pay attention to me while they’re out trying to enjoy their evening? And should I be true to myself and my own sense of humor or should I try and write jokes that I think people want to hear? If a joke is funny to me when I say it to myself, will it be funny in front of people? I often wrestle with these ideas as I scribble jokes and funny ideas into notebooks. In comedy I always want to please everyone, and this mindset holds me back from fulfilling my own desire to perform and create.
While I am busy fretting about how to entertain strangers, ERA’s R + J: A Telephone Play directly confronts (among other topics) this same complicated idea of the audience. Before the play even begins the actors mill around the space, chatting with the audience and introducing the show’s concept. After the show the cast sat with the audience, enjoying snacks and champagne as they watched the Bodysnatchers improv performance. By never disappearing backstage the players help make The Chapel feel much more intimate and warm.
The space is arranged as a thrust stage and on opening night I decided to sit downstage squarely in the middle. It proved to be a great choice, as I could in my peripheral vision see the entire space. Throughout the night I had almost as much fun watching the crowd as I did watching the play itself. From my seat I could easily make out the expressions of those sitting on the sides. I loved watching their faces as the actors said shocking lines, addressed the audience directly, and sat in empty chairs in the front rows.
At multiple points in the play actors utilize a raised space behind the seats to stage left, sometimes to play the piano and other times to dance or give lines. An older man sat at the end of the row just in front of this piano space and caught my eye early on. I watched over the course of the play as he resisted the urge to turn around and watch the action behind him. Towards the play’s end two actors exchanged lines directly behind the man’s seat. I watched him squirm in his seat for a few seconds before finally twisting around to watch the tense exchange between characters. He couldn’t look away. None of us could.
While R + J: A Telephone Play explores the nature of the audience, it does not share my same insecurities about performing for one. What struck me on opening night was how the players treated the audience. They were not like me at the Fitz’s open mic back in October, fumbling through words and fragmented ideas with too much tunnel-vision to really gauge the audience’s reaction. The actors play to the audience’s intelligence and completely own the chaos in the script. Characters come and go, the fourth wall is erected and destroyed, lines and references to Romeo and Juliet are thrown about, and characters dance and drink milk. The result? Ninety minutes of outlandish, wildly affecting theater.
ERA is a company that not only respects everyone in their audience; they love them. R + J: A Telephone Play is a testament to the organic magic that can come from experimentation and boldness in art. And what’s more is that this artistic fearlessness is contagious. In fact, I might take it with me to an open mic night sometime soon.