Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Role-playing (Part 4)

If there was one defining trait that has hindered me socially throughout my life, it's my need to be liked. And I think there's no better story to show that than this one. Enjoy.

-Matt

Role-playing

Matt Shafeek The Life Of The Party?
Lou Townsend's Apt. / Astoria, NY / December 2003

I'm at a birthday party for Lou Townsend, one of my favorite improvisers that I feel bold enough to call a friend. I’ve been a part of the Upright Citizen’s Brigade community for about a year now, and I’m finally starting to feel for the first time like I'm with people who "get it." Long-form improv blew me away from the very first show I saw, and I've been taking classes and spending as much time at the theater as possible ever since. Finally, my post-college years have some semblance of direction. I recently decided that if I became a brilliant improviser, everything else - the decision not to go to grad school, the crappy temp jobs, living back at home with my mother - would actually make perfect sense. I would no longer be wasting my life, I'd be sacrificing everything for my art.

The party is a huge event, taking up every floor of the three story apartment building. As I come in, I see the faces of people I'd been obsessively watching on stage for over a year now, in awe of their ability to make a room full of people laugh their asses off without the safety net of a script, pet or hilarious wig. I slink around, smiling at everyone and trying to figure out who might possibly recognize me. I'm a shade darker skinned than nearly everyone there, so I stand out even to those I don't know. I find the snack table and double dip some carrot sticks in ranch dressing before finding some familiar faces and settling in alongside them.

I have a brief conversation with one of my improv-idols Pete Mayer on the merits of Ben Folds' most recent EP. We're both big fans and I see this as an opportunity to bond with someone whose talents I figure I can start to siphon eventually. I start off describing my dislike of most of the songs but Pete is more than happy to engage me in a lengthy dissection of each track. Soon the fact that I know far less about Ben Folds' oeuvre (as well as music in general) than him is made very apparent, and I find myself slowly conceding to the fact that the EP is "actually pretty good, I guess." Right about then, another fellow performer from the theater comes over to me. His name is Sam Sloan.

Sam Sloan is the rare kind of guy you almost always see smiling. He's half Asian, half white (a mix, like me!), but otherwise fairly ordinary looking  medium height, medium build  though on the verge of husky  and he nods his head and says "rockin'" and "all right" as a response to almost anything, making him seem like the most agreeable guy on the planet. His confidence also makes him take up more space in the room than anyone else.

We exchange a few pleasantries and then, inexplicably, he starts tugging at my sweater and slowly begins to pull it over my head.

"Uh – haha, dude, what are you doing?" I ask, sensing some sort of bit. I'm as big a people pleaser as they come, but disrobing isn't in my usual repertoire of smiling, nodding, or laughing just a little more than I probably should have.

"What are you talking about? I'm not doing anything. This is a nice color on you, you know that?" Sam says with a wink and a nod, as if we'd been planning this out for weeks.

A few fellow party-goers start to notice this, and soon we’re the focus of the room. Sam pulls an additional layer off of me, a Homestar Runner t-shirt. As my protesting continues, he shushes me quiet with a noise normally reserved for babies on the verge of tears. People begin to laugh. Not wanting to ruin this great bit for the sake of a few layers  that frankly, I didn't need to wear anyway  I fight my natural instincts and play along, continuing to verbally protest but doing nothing to physically stop it.

Within a very short time I am down to my blue and gray Gap-branded boxer briefs, and at I am now beginning to regret the desperately passive stance I've taken thus far. An attractive but unfamiliar woman enters the room and she stare at me, wondering what she's walked in on. My eyes shift to Sam, who immediately becomes indignant and says to me:

"Shafeek! What the hell are you doing, why are you taking all your clothes off?"

"I...I don't know." I say, half playing along, half completely and utterly lost. "I'm...sorry." I'm now apologizing to others for the embarrassment being brought upon me.

More laughter. This bit has gone over quite well. I wonder if Sam and I can take this show on the road after tonight. We'll go town to town putting on shows where the audience will start to point and laugh before slowly realizing there's a look of forced acceptance on my smiling face, then they'll wonder, as I am right now, whether or not they're comfortable with what's going on in front of them. Or maybe they won't, if our test audience is any indication. Maybe they'll just sit back to see what happens next.

"Shafeek, you're ruining this party for everyone, what's wrong with you?!" Sam scolds me as he simultaneously prevents me from putting my pants back on.

I debate a few courses of action to salvage the situation. Turning the tables and taking Sam’s clothes off would probably show everyone that what's going on is a two-way street. I could even try to totally own it, excuse myself from him and walk over and double-dip some more carrot sticks, nearly naked. You know  exactly how I prefer to be at parties. Finally there's the simple option of telling Sam to knock it the fuck out (I realize now that if my first words earlier had been "Uh, haha, dude, what the fuck are you doing,?" this incident would have probably ended right then and there). 

Unfortunately, I don't have the nerve to try any of these ideas, so I'm stuck standing there, wearing next to nothing and apologizing to people for what Sam has done to me. My only hope is that maybe this is some kind of hazing that happens just before you're put on a house team at the theater, and at some point moments from now Lou Townsend is going to come from another room a with new pair of clothes and 7 other hilarious improvisers that I'll soon be performing with every Tuesday night.

All of this thought is interrupted by Sam, who has started tugging at my boxer briefs. Instinct finally overwrites all conscious thought as I firmly push his hand away. Sam smoothly raises his hands, smiles and says "all right." There's an awkward beat and then, sensing an unfinished air in the room, I bow to everyone. Then I grab my clothes and run off to get dressed in the first empty bedroom I can find.

When I come out, I avoid eye contact with everyone in the room and try to shrink into a corner to be forgotten, but I feel like my title of "what's that guy's name? the one that almost got stripped naked at Lou's party?" has been firmly established.

I linger quietly for a while then eventually slink out when no one's looking, which seems like the most graceful way to handle the situation.

As I get outside, I pass a tall improviser with thick glasses that I don't really know. He's smoking a cigarette. He takes a drag and asks me:

"So what the fuck was going on up there? Were you stripping or something?"

"Ah, it was just a bit - kind of an inside joke, actually."

"Well, I didn't see most of it, but it sounded like everyone was loving it."

"Thanks dude. Maybe next time I'll wear some tassles."

"Hah, yeah, that'd be pretty fucking funny."

I leave Astoria hoping that this one conversation spreads throughout the party and when it eventually gets to Sam, he'll be drunk enough to let the whole event get rewritten in his mind. After all, improvisers make up their scenework, why can't they engage in a little revisionist history as well?

It's a small, kind of pathetic hope, but it helps me get to sleep that night.

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