I don't like improv comedy and I don't understand poetry.
I am not proud of these two facts about my mind, but I am compelled to admit these things if you want to understand how perverse it is that I am utterly fascinated by a show that is a combination of both improv comedy and spoken word poetry.
Don't get me wrong: I love poetry. I love the music and the flow of words. I love the intensity of the experience and I love the weird world you enter when you listen to it or read it, like walking into a church and taking a deep breath of incense and then suddenly realizing that the incense is actually airplane glue and !!!!!oh fuk yoru brane iz awn fier wit fierwrkz and oh no here cumes lightz and god!!!!!
Poetry arouses me, and not just in a sexual way.
But I don't think I understand poetry. Nothing scares me more than being asked what I thought of a poem. It is like being asked what I thought of a dream.
"I was very glad when the mermaids put their faces back on and it turned out that my skeleton was not made from fluorescent markers? I was so glad on basically every level?"
To fight off very alarming insights I have on a regular basis regarding the essential meaninglessness and "total pain" of reality itself, I am compelled to turn everything into a narrative that makes sense to me.
I think most people are like this, but big narratives like religion, politics, or relationships don't work on me, so I basically just try to get through every day with my sense of continuity intact.
"Spectacles, testicles, watch, wallet...and...the identity property! Oh good."
Writing fiction also helps, adding or subtracting a little bit each day from a narrative that stretches further than waking to waking, like one of those ropes that cartoon characters use that defies gravity as long as they don't notice that it is cut.
NOW. Maybe you are like me, and maybe you aren't. Either way, now that it has been established that I am a hater, let me tell you about a little show that is the best show in New York City to see if you consider yourself a fancier of literary experiments or entertainment that is:
1. Cheap ($5!)
5. Communal &
6. As Creatively Satisfying (and Spiritually Exhausting) as Actually Making Something Yourself For Some Reason
Watching Kiss Punch Poem is watching the creative mind in macrocosm, slowed down and expanded, like watching a drunk, genius illustrator toss off a caricature on a napkin that is much better than any drawing you could ever make in your life.
Here's how the show goes down. First of all, while the audience is milling around under a vaguely-creepy sign that just says "Yes!" (one of the rules of improv is to say "yes" to everything, which is exactly what I also tell people I am trying to exploit (I learned this from the Beatles ("Ooo girl -- being uncritically positive -- oh yeah -- about trying new experiences sure is -- yeah, yeah -- attractive! Girl! Hey hey hey!"))), the audience is asked to contribute lines to a communal poem.
The poem is then read out loud on stage.
A group of improvisers then picks facets of the poem as departure points for short, comedic scenes. These are called skits, or sketches, or skuts, or skifflings, or something. I do not know what the standard unit of improv is called. There is a certain sort of person that spells "laugh" with two f's, and I try to stay the hell away from them.
The scenes that work and to which they audience responds are filed away in the minds of the improvisers for later recall. Particularly effective characters and concepts become instant leitmotifs.
Every ten minutes or so, a poet interrupts the improvisation and delivers a short, five minute poem. These poets are damn good. Some of the best poetry I have heard in this city I have heard at this show.
The improvisers work the themes and concepts from the poems into new scenes, creating an expanding web of semiotic touchstones that stagger toward some greater meaning, hinting at some feverish psychological revelation.
A final poem is delivered, but this poem is also improvised by a poet who has been concentrating in the wings the whole time. The poem ties together all the preoccupations, themes, recurring gags, and emotional excitement from the other poems and from the improvised comedy, turning the whole performance into a piece of art that truly resonates, mainly because we have all been a part of its production at this point and so we collectively long for closure, meaning, and transcendence.
It is hard to describe how effective this whole thing is. It is like spoken word poetry and improv comedy have been doing it, and when they get off, their climax is a fusion of forms that shouldn't work, BUT THEY DO!!! Maybe that is what the "Yes!" sign is for.
The show has such an elegant architecture to it that simply watching the performance unfold is extremely exciting if you like narrative.
It is also exciting to watch improvisers betray deep psychological dilemmas on stage without much interiority or panic. If you are a bad person, it is fun to watch people reveal too much without knowing it, especially in the company of poets who are sensitive to this sort of thing and who make a career out of revealing too much on purpose.
The brutal structure allows the performers involved to unleash their strengths while the excesses of both art forms are put into extreme conflict, grinding against each other to create friction:
1. The marshalling of imagery and metaphor in order to prove a point or to provoke in poetry is mimicked -- in fumbling anecdotal narrative form -- by the decisions of the improvisers.
The improv reveals that poetry is not incidental in its choices and preoccupations: the deliberate choices that poetry makes create a satisfying tightness that improv can only ape by callbacks and ad hoc structure. The poetry is thereform balm to improv's existential provocation.
Another way that the poetry corrects the improvisation is the way in which it drags the improv into dark, strange places that broadly-minded comedians who are trying to get laughs do not necessarily like to go on their own, even though these depths are where real humor hides. This makes the improv better. The improvisers have permission to talk about crazy shit, because someone more politically "good" has already gone there first and the audience did not try to kill them.
2. Spoken word poetry has a tendency to take itself extremely seriously. There's nothing wrong with this. If literature were an army, poets would be snipers -- haughty, serious people with the highest kill-counts (fiction writers, obviously, would be drunk cowardly officers who mysteriously always manage to eat steak and drink champagagne in the trenches).
Poets make demands on the heart. I love identity politics, just like anybody else. But I get bored, you know?
But improvisers are not serious people. They have to "action" these poems, immediately. They pick the meatiest, most concrete bits and build scenes out of them, unpacking them in real time and keeping the poems from fluttering away, making sure they stick to you by pinning them into your chest with a sword.
The improvisers are wicked Festes to the poets' Malvolios, though in the case of Kiss Punch Poem, it is ultimately the poets who have the last word. I like watching the steel cage match between poetry and improvisation. I like the ginned-up, sublimated competition. I like seeing literature come out on top. I like seeing comedians do their best as bad guy wrestlers.
This was the best picture of Malvolio and Feste from "Twelfth Night" I could find. I am disappointed in you, internet.
CAMERA 2, PLEASE.
A word about why I usually don't like improv comedy.
I don't care for the welcoming, YMCA feel of improv theater. I think it is manipulative and has taken over underground theater in a cult-like fashion that makes me nervous.
All the tools and tricks of other effective cults are in play in the improv theater community: the money comes from classes that are taught by "professionals," charismatic leaders create arbitrary groups to destabilize and control willing acolytes, the emphasis is on uncritical positivity, those in positions of power abuse their authority for petty gain, the plurality of the audience comes from other people who are involved in the cult, etc.
If I were Tom Wolfe, I would write a withering ten-part essay about the improv world for "Harpers" and you would be forced to reckon with my keen analytic mind, but I am not Tom Wolfe.
I think people who are good at acting have natural abilities (pathologies?) that are specific to their craft. I'm not going to say that "art cannot be taught." Sure, you can learn how to express yourself in new ways. But America's heaven these days is "temporal fame," and improv theaters sell the promise of this fame with the same methods that churches sell actual heaven.
It is a pyramid scheme where the product is temporary chuckles.
All that great, lasting comedy that you have enjoyed over the years was written down by somebody, and then edited, honed, and practiced. The thrill of improv comedy is that it is spontaneous, and it is interesting to see what people can come up with without thinking very much. Most of the time, however, watching this process fills me with so much sympathetic embarassment that I get sort of ill in my seat, squirming around, wishing to die.
I think the act of total failure on a stage binds improv comedians together like drinking the blood of Jesus. I don't like paying money to see this. My friend Isabel in Austin invented a genre of music called "friend rock," and I think improv generally always fall into this category.
In the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard," he talks about how all art is people turning things that are supposed to be fun into complicated rituals, and about how any time a new art is created, something vital to the human experience is lost to all the rest of us.
The thing about improv is that it seems to me the "art" of it is just a bunch of people having a good time with their friends. For a small fee, you get to experience the vicarious thrill of this good time, judging the performers on their ability to "KEEP HAVING A GOOD TIME NO MATTER WHAT, NEVER LETTING THE BALLOON OF ARBITRARY IDEAS AND SPONTANEOUS PIZAZZ HIT THE GROUND."
A bunch of pals just hanging out may be the 21st century's contribution to eternity, but I don't have to like it and you can't make me.
CAVEAT: I used to make sandwiches in this un-air-conditioned, underground basement in Manhattan for a restaurant whose wait staff were all one single irritating improv troupe from Florida. I hated them; they hated me. It is possible that I am still harboring unresolved resentments to their craft.
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The improvisers at Kiss Punch Poem are really fucking funny. Take my word for it as a hate-filled raincloud: they were probably all abused as children in just the right way. I am from America's desert and grew up around dangerous people with guns and apocalyptic imaginations. Give me a psychotic situation, or an unwinnable game with the threat of actual violence, and I feel right at home. New York, despite what seventies movies led me to believe, is much more tame and civilized than you might expect, like the court of a French King, where everyone is trying to outdo each other with subtle class distinctions and politicking that are ultimately lost on me.
I don't really understand California, the Midwest, the South, or the East Coast, so I look at the performance as a psychological education into the world in which I now live.
These ladies and gentlemen are fantastic, on-the-fly satirists. They unload very intriguing baggage in a thoroughly amusing manner. I enjoy sifting through it. You will, too.
There is a medium-to-large cultural revolution happening in NYC these days, specifically with respect to literature shows, which are making actual money and drawing actual crowds.
Except for a few places in Brooklyn, the "conventional literary reading" is dying off to be replaced with something half-way between hip-hop and theater.
Storytelling shows, like the Moth, and poetry slams, like the Poetry Slam, have been popular for a decade, but the problem I have always had with both of these institutions is that so much of the craft on display is dependent on the personality of the artist, like stand-up comedy. Quiet geniuses get ignored. Subtlety is lost.
But this dynamic is changing. Very loud, strident performers are being coupled to very quiet ones. It is not a revolution of performance: the poets of Kiss Punch Poem read complicated work and do not stoop or pander. It is a revolution of context.
There are examples every night of a new show where literature is massaged into the meat of other performance spectacles, to varying degrees of success.
For years now, The Fiction Circus has been exploring the ways that frame narratives and multimedia can situate live reading in a way to make people pay more attention. We have held seances, group marriages, dance contests, Satanic rituals, speed dating contests, reunion shows, stag film screenings, and robberies.
In its highest aspirations, fiction is supposed to be a synthesis of philosophy and poetry. More often than not, fiction is instead a synthesis of journalism and porn.
That's fine, actually. Philosophy, poetry, journalism, and porn. Throw them all in the blender and hit liquefy and add some vodka and let me have a taste.
But Kiss Punch Poem is by far the most successful implementation of this framing concept that I have seen. It is fun. It is art. It is emotionally jarring, without being maudlin or crass. Meghann Plunkett, the creator of this show, is a damn genius.
The improvisers are also fantastic comedians, and most likely, fantastic people. Alex Marino, for instance, always seems keenly aware of the ridiculousness of what is going on, drawing you into deeper realms of absurdity the same way that a good friend convinces you to get late night pizza in a bad neighborhood, and then buy coke from a guy outside the pizza store, and then do the coke with some strangers from Iceland you just met, and then go ice skating. Marino sells shitty ideas with sheer gusto, dragging you into impossible depths with a manic grin and pore-level likability.
Jared Singer, who often performs the improvised wrap-up poem with chilling grace, is able to flow spiritual epiphany with the same alacrity that Tech-N9ne flows murder advice and drink recipes. Edge of your seat type shit.
So get high and go see Kiss Punch Poem. You can buy beer there. It will be a good time and you will hear some poetry and see A New Thing. A New Art Form, Bigger Than the Sum of Its Parts.
It is the Exquisite Corpse made Electric, Reanimated and Set Loose, Sewed Together with Parts from Diverse Worlds and Shot Through With New Life for New Times.
It is exactly the sort of thing you moved to New York to see, so get the fuck out there and see it already.
And if you are a poet (or prose-poet) -- slam or otherwise -- this is surely the best venue in town for your wares.
Kiss Punch Poem happens the last Sunday of every month at the Magnet Theater on 29th Street in Manhattan at 9:30 PM. That is this Sunday. I have also been told that they will be performing in Boston soon.
Posted by miracle on Fri, 27 Jan 2012 20:20:20 -0500 -- permanent link