Clacking Mandibles

This. This right here. This is the moment. Can you feel it, dear readers? It’s a thing you can neither see nor hear, but you can sense its cold chill as it passes you by.

What you feel is where it all went wrong for the Yeti. Yes, that first seam, that crack that always appears. Where their inexorable rise to greatness, their seemingly unstoppable freight train of improvisational talent started to edge itself off the tracks. And it was here. Right here, my lovelies. Right now. This was the time that they let the tech crew write on the directorial blog. Where they asked those with an enduring faith in a discrete and knowable universe to comment on the infinite expanse of art and imagination.

“Oh, hey, could you write the blog this time?” they asked, “My flight’s in the morning, and I probably won’t have time to write something up.”

And so was the beginning of the end.

Dramatic pause. Hi there, everyone. Josh Rhoades speaking. I’m the guy in the sweaters, pushing buttons. You’ve seen me. I’ll be your harbinger of doom for this, our monthly missive from the seedy underbelly of Anchorage improv. Please. Take a walk with me through our cluttered backstage. Let me show you what improv looks like from someone on the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum.

John Hanus is on my speakerphone. “Uh, so I shut down the store, and when I’m logged in it’s fine, but when I log out, it still shows the store is open.” To fill you in: we have to shut down the online store a few hours prior to shows, as otherwise we introduce madness to the house management and ticket taking processes.

I happen to be naked, but the insect-programmer-brain buzzes. IT IS AN OBJECT CACHING ISSUE it tells me. I just got out of the shower. I work in IT. You don’t have to do a lot of things in IT. You don’t have to lift heavy things. You don’t have to deal with the public. You don’t have to work against the clock to save anybody’s life. But you do have to answer the phone at 5 o’clock before a show.

“I, um,” I start, rifling through a pile of clean clothes, “I need to get some clothes on.”

“Take a look at it,” John says, “Give me a call back.”

I pull on some socks. “I’ll fix it.” It’s always an object caching issue. “I’m about to leave. See you in 20.”

I dress. I wake up my computer and I fix it. It was an object caching issue. I leave. I see John in 20 minutes.

It’s frustrating as hell. You know how, ah, let’s see… bowling. Bowling is a great example. I, for one, am a terrible bowler. Always have been. Always will be. Rather than a controlled, aimed throw, I throw the ball in a single, cathartic, full-body spasm, aiming the ball more out of sheer force of will than any degree of finesse or motor control. Hockey slapshot meets Street Fighter hadouken, if you will.

There’s a weird thing about it, though. Being that I am a terrible bowler, and therefore rarely seek out my own bowling adventures, there is usually a significant amount of time that passes between bowling sessions. Often, a year, or even years, can pass between my final frame and the first frame of my next game.

The frustrating thing is, after such a long time, I usually kill it on my first frame. Almost without fail, a strike or a spare, easy. And not even trying, or even thinking about it. Beginner’s luck, you might call it. ABSENCE OF PROCEDURAL MEMORY INFORMED BY HUMAN CONFIRMATION BIAS the insect-programmer-brain reminds me. The second I do think about bowling, all is lost. I can’t even break 100 for the rest of the game. But, for that one singular, crystalline moment, I am throwing goddamn rocks.

So here’s the thing. Urban Yeti. These shows? They’re down two people in their troupe, playing with the bare minimum players for all of the games, even having to share the load when it comes to announcing games and other stagecraft boilerplate. The games themselves are mentally and physically exhausting, even when you get to sit out a game or two. This time: everybody fights, nobody quits.

On top of that, they’ve never performed some of these games in front of an audience, and from what I pick up between furtive looks and not-so-secret stage whispers, some of the rehearsals had gone less than swimmingly.

Oh, right, and every single one of the players have difficult, high-impact lives outside of improv, going to difficult, high-impact jobs, coupled with difficult, high-impact families. It’s been a hell of a week.

I stand to the side during shows, ineffectively ushering people in, and helping when I can. If unneeded, I peek over the barrier and watch what I can of the show between light cues. And here they are, opening night of Love is Blind and After Dark. And they are throwing rocks.

This is, in fact, the headspace they thrive in. I’ve watched them rehearse while I am mashing away on the nearest keyboard. They aren’t practicing how to be funny. Instead, they’re practicing how to not think about throwing something, and hitting what they they want every time.

For this first show, they’re trying out a new game. They call it, um, what was it… Arecibo? Alejandro? Armando? I don’t know. Something like that. They collect suggestions, then a player must give a truthful monologue, related to love, blindness, or the intersection thereof. There’s an element of truth, sadness, and embarrassment in each of the stories, but they are all, in turn, hilarious. And from those monologues, the rest of the players invent new stories, games, and characters based on their partner’s story.

This is what they do. They’re in a new, limitless space, riffing on the varied and diverse backgrounds of the players themselves. They’re like kids set loose on a brand new playground, screaming with that weird, piercing laughter the childless can’t distinguish between joy and murder. Everyone is having fun, and the audience is having fun with them. How can you not? How can you not have fun exploring a new playground?

I laugh from my dark station in the wings. The chitinous mandibles of the insect-programmer-brain start clacking together again. THEY ASKED YOU TO TAKE NOTES, it chides me. YOU SHOULD BE TAKING NOTES.

Quiet you, insect-programmer-brain. I am enjoying this.

A few months ago. One of our first Debauchery shows. Players are coming back from intermission. John is getting the crowd back into place. Screen washers are up, house lights are down. YOU FORGOT SOMETHING HUMAN it reminds me.

What? No. No, I didn’t. Be quiet. Let me enjoy the show.


“So, can I get a suggestion from the audience for…?” John pauses, “Uh…”

The All-American Rejects’ song, “Dirty Little Secret” suddenly begins playing over the sound system. This isn’t supposed to be happening.

“Well, that’s kind of weird,” John says, flashing a smile to the audience, then glancing in my direction.

WE TOLD THE HUMANFLESH, it tells me, chirping its hindlegs in violent glee.

Oh no. I forgot to hit pause on the sound setup. VLC Media Player by default has a 10 second default display on the transition images. It had reset the defaults when I upgraded. It had been 11 seconds since I stepped down from the projector booth. I sprint back to the booth, climb the ladder, and hit the spacebar as hard as I’ve ever hit a spacebar. The syrupy pop rock stops.

I peer through the tiny projector window. I see the players are rolling with it. Laughing along. They’ve started a game.

All I can hear is the roar of the HVAC and insectoid laughter.

Screenwashers down. Main house lights on full. Projector on, channel 3. Ignore the error message, that is always there. Douser open. Volume at 8.0. VLC Media player’s default image transition settings are at 9,999 seconds. Still, though. I feel like I’ve forgotten something.

I’m in the lobby, waiting for the house to open for the second show. We’ve never done two shows in an evening with Urban Yeti. One show was usually plenty. This is unprecedented.

Somebody asks me: “Why did you guys start doing two shows?”

I shrug. I think I say, “They wanted to play different kinds of games.” Then I continue gesticulate wildly as my social grace emulation engines start to glow a worrying red.

It occurs to me that maybe we haven’t ever described improv games. Have you ever been to an improv show? They have these games they play. All of the games have fun names. “Try that on for size.” “Deaf Replay.” “Chain Murder.” Some even have multiple names, depending on different variations on the rules. There are, well, dozens upon dozens of games I’ve seen, and likely hundreds in the whole scheme of things.

Anyhow. We have 30-45 minutes to reset the stage, and then begins the second show. Starting at 10pm, and aptly titled “After Dark,” it focuses on what the people in the biz call “short form” games. This is in stark comparison to what the people in the biz call “long form” games. Nobody will answer me when I ask if there is a “medium form.” Maybe I lack a critical understanding.

Anyhow. For an example: the Arecibo/Alejandro/Armando game they played in the last Love is Blind set is what you consider a “long form” game, built around taking single suggestions and turning them into longer, more robust comedic stories.

The After Dark set is built around shorter games, with smaller, concise objectives. These are the most popular, and if you have seen improv before, you have likely seen these types of games. And for our players, these are their bread and butter. They’ve played on this playground before. They’ve been down that slide. This is their home turf.

But here’s the thing. The After Dark set scares me a little bit. Not in the “there are legitimate safety concerns” sense, though, for our Speaker with Arms game last night I was a little worried the Hanii had hurt themselves. No, it’s more scary in the “they’ve added an element of true randomness to the show that could really muck with things.”

And here’s why. Rather than laying out their games in a predefined set list, checking for pacing, non-repetition, audience exhaustion, or player exhaustion, they’ve instead written the numbers 1 through 20 on laminated sheets of paper and taped them to the back of the stage. For each new game, the players have the audience pick a number. On the back of each laminated card is a “short form” game to play. Pick the card, and you have to play that game.

Somebody jokes before the show: “Wouldn’t that be terrible if we had, like, Dead Celebrity Diner, Return Desk, and Interrogation, all in a row?”

John Parsi, our newest director, just laughs a hearty John Parsi laugh. Those are all challenging, arduous guessing games. Having them back-to-back risks losing the audience if there are mistakes, missteps, or too-obscure suggestions, making it hard to keep up energy and audience attention.

Coming from a world of logic, determinism, and finitude, we computer people seek to eliminate all possible randomness. If a system starts to exhibit signs of random occurrence, happenstance, or begins to understand the nature of human emotion, we must purge it and start anew. There is no place for randomness in a knowable universe.

For improv, however, they welcome it. They feed on it. Again, this is what they do. This is what they’re here for. We did end up playing back-to-back, difficult guessing games. The insect-programmer-brain clawed nervously at its tunnel walls. But they did great. They all laughed a hearty laugh.

“What’d you think of the show?” they ask. They always ask. I should probably take notes.

“It was good,” I say, staring out a window. “I enjoyed it.”

I try to make it a point not to judge people on something I can’t do myself. Being friends with performance artists, this makes for a lot of frustrating discussions after shows. I know they are serious about what they do. There really isn’t anything I can tell them that they don’t already know themselves. But all they want is honesty, and maybe something to eat. Nobody usually eats before a show.

“Yeah,” they said. “We’ve got some stuff to work on.”

A while passes.

“Should I be playing slides on the screen during intermission?”

“Yeah, probably. We also need some sort of announcement. Give people a one minute warning or something.”

TIMECODE, comes the chittering, TRANSPARENT TITLE. REVERSE SPEED. BURN. “I bet I can add I countdown timer to the intermission slides.” I trail off, eyes focused distant on a far away problem.

“Eh, don’t worry about it.”

There were plenty of new faces in the crowd as well as regulars. I suggested the Urban Yeti improv classes to multiple people who expressed interest. If I can bestow but one accolade, it should be that you make it look easy, look seamless, look fun enough that people would want to step on to the stage and try it themselves.

That’s not for me, though, I do enjoy being elsewhere in the process. I enjoy seeing the shows. I’m happy they let me push the buttons. Or twist the occasional knob. Or edit the occasional video. Or customize the occasional CMS.

That is what the insect-programmer-brain makes me good at. I can’t help them do what they do on stage. But I can certainly help them get up there. And I’m glad that they do.