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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Severn Darden, You Are Missed.

Last night, before our youngest's mouth was affected, my hub and I went on our first date in ages. It was billed as a political improv group as they played Presidential-debate Jeopardy. We later learned that the moderator was someone who analyses faces, like the main character in Lie To Me--so his hints of analysis were fascinating glimpses into a specially educated mind. 

Unfortunately, the improv team's best political comedian could not see the screen, which was where most of the humor was taking place--in the facial reactions of the presidential and vice presidential candidates. 

Also, unfortunately, his teammates were not very aware politically, which does make it harder to improvise political comedy. I found myself wishing my very funny husband were on the team instead. And also wishing that there had been some women up there, as their lack drastically reduced the opportunities for humor--which, of course, made me wish I could have been on the panel as well. 

I suppose this wouldn't be so farfetched, if I chose to pursue it, because a long time ago, when I was a teenager, I took a class with Paul Sills. In those days, I was in college already, though still very much high school age, and spent a lot of time pretending to be a grownup, so pretending that I understood a word that Mr. Sills said was not such a stretch. Mostly, he yelled, a lot, in a strained, desperate baritone, words like: "What? What? What?" or "No, no, Where? Where? Where?" and my favorite ever comment from any  teacher I've ever had: "No, Sakki, it's not your fault." (spoken with pity. "You're the victim of a public school education." A pause. "You think there's a right way to do things." (A quote I return to on a regular basis when I am struggling with whatever the hell we struggle with in our lives, creative challenges, say, or just plain life itself.)

Viola Spolin in the 1930's. 
Sill's improv was based on his mother, Viola's Spolin's improv work, which had been designed not for theater, but to help English language learners get over their shyness and leap into language. If the kids were focusing  on goals like creating an imaginary place (a Where) and interacting with that, they wouldn't be as focused on making mistakes in their English. 
On the right in the striped shirt, Viola Spolin, above, her son Paul, and in front, his shoulder's hunched as he listens intently, Severn Darden. 

Viola's games, the basis of all modern improve, might things like building an imaginary identity, (a Who) while working away at some imaginary activity (obviously, a What.) Unfortunately, Paul did not explain this concept, just dumped us into exercises and yelled WHO! WHO! WHAT! WHERE at us. Usually for each exercise, we'd be given two of these objectives and have to create the third--like the fabulous improv I got to do one time with the extraordinary Paul Sand. 
front row, from left, Barbara harris, Paul Sand, Mina Kolb, Severn in beard in back, and Andrew Duncan? (Alan Arkin is tucked behind Paul Sand.) 
He was the boss, I the secretary and our objective was to create the Where and the What (where we were and what we were doing) and the way we were to do it was taking turns going on stage to create (via pantomime) one object in the space we were creating. Each time one of us came on, we would have to interact with the item the other person had just added before add our own, around and around, until we had a complete (imaginary) office and could then, focusing on the things in the room, create the What--whatever it was we were doing, which in this case turned out, (rather unimaginatively) to be a romance. But, I have to tell you, when you've both been flirting via the creation and use of every conceivable (invisible) piece of office equipment or furniture long before you actually interact with each other, everything that takes place becomes fresh and unexpected--everything has been created in that magical somewhere between you, not within the shoddy little limitations of your own imagination. 

But the scene with Paul was later. Now, I was in the middle of a class that Mr. Sills cancelled in the middle of one of his shouting fits. "No, no, no. You're not--you don't--Where! Where! That's it. The class is over. We're done. We're finished. " And he stormed out of the room while we students--and they were all at least ten years older than me--all stood there, eyes wide, v-e-r-y confused. 

I followed him outside, where I found him muttering to himself at the end of the outdoor hallway--this was one of those hideous sixties Los Angeles apartments that were built with the hallways outside. "Did you just cancel our class?" I asked. 

"Yes," he said. 

"For today? Or forever?"

"Forever," he said. "You're not--! You just don't--! You can't learn it. You're not, you're all NOT learning it." 

"Well, I know I'm struggling," I said, because frankly I never had a clue what he was yelling or why. "But I think I am learning something from you." 

And just like that, he invited me to "play" with some people, giving me a When and a Where--a shady neighborhood near downtown--but no Who. A bit later, my mom dropped me off, I went inside, and found a bunch of pretty old people (especially to me) whose names I recognized from old Second City Recordings, and who knocked me breathless with their improvisatory skills. The greatest of all was a bearded, shuffling bear of a man named Severn Darden. I still remember him encouraging me (ha!) by telling me about the incandescently twisted Barbara Harris, who joined the Compass players when she was my age. "Don't worry," he said. "Barbara was a teenager, too. She barely talked for months and months and months and then one day, she said--" a dramatic pause--"'A whole half a lemon?'" He sighed. "Brilliant. Absolutely genius." (And okay, but even sans context, in Severn's mouth, those words were hilarious. It didn't matter what led up to it, you could tell it was a hell of a punch-line.)  

So, in honor of Severn, I will tell you my favorite improv moment with him. I don't remember our What, or our Who, but our Where was a picnic. While we others created our fancy little scene, Severn, in one of his favorite roles as the moon-faced, rebellious, adult teenager muttered things now and then, ignoring us, and focusing on eating grapes (pantomimed, of course) from a large bunch held over his mouth, lipped into it one by one.

Then, at the ultimate moment in the sketch, (when he had to begin to behave like a grownup,) he began, in character, to pretend he was a WWII plane spitting machine gun bullets which he spewed--imaginary grape seeds aimed at us all, chasing us off the blanket and away from his picnic. It was the funniest and most unexpected thing I have ever seen. And it was utterly and completely Severn Darden. 

I know that I am a fortunate person to have seen him at work so many times, to have heard his wisdom, however hard it was to translate. I know I was fortunate to study, however briefly and incoherently, with Paul Sills. (Tino Insana, when he joined us, explained privately that Sills had mellowed with age and with treatment for his diabetes, and that, he, Tino, had known Sills to chase people across the stage, knock them down and blam their heads into the floor, trying to get them to understand his concepts. Talk about listening as a wide-eyed teenager!) 

Anyway, yesterday, seeing that group--as generous as they were with one another, as kind and supportive--I longed to see Dick Schall (the best pantomimer I have ever known) and Valerie Harper--a couple of times--Dick Libertini now and then, Mina Kolb and Tino Ensana and Paul Sand and Annie Ryerson--she was so kind--and Avery Shreiber and what was the name of the little Lebanese guy who would always get into fights with Paul--fights you could tell they'd been having for the last fifty years? Oh, yes, Hamilton Camp--otherwise known as Hamid Hamilton Camp. 

And, of course, Severn, who was so amazingly, extraordinarily, incredibly brilliant and so willing to plunge into whatever he was doing like a peregrine falcon in a stoop, all 240 miles per hour. 

For those of you who wish to see him in his professor mode, here's one interview, and for those who want to read one of his professor riffs, I will include it in the next post--though it's really not the same unless it's coming from his brilliant mouth. 

Still, I strongly recommend you read it, and howl. And when you're done, check out anything by Elaine May and Elaine May on the internet, including but not limited to her roasting of him as the cousin of Albert Einstein. Life is too short not to spend a great hunk of it roaring with laughter.

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