Improv Theatre Recalls Evolution of a Meme


My favorite picture of my friend, Jessica, an aspiring actress.
Image: GrrlScientist, 15 June 2008.

I took a little time away from writing today because a friend of mine, an aspiring actress, invited me to her improvisational acting class graduation. Even though I understand what improv is, I have never been to an actual performance, so I didn’t know what to expect.


The theatre itself is located in the basement of a building in Chelsea. It was like a cave; low ceilings and thick concrete support pillars in the middle of the space — all painted black — and a collection of old movie theatre seats that were in various stages of disrepair. I wondered if there was an evacuation plan in case of an earthquake for a few moments before reminding myself that NYC is not especially geologically active.
An announcement on the loudspeakers reminded the gathered audience to turn their cell phones off, and then we were all plunged into a blackness that was almost as complete as what I experienced as a child in the Carlesbad Caverns tour. Then the stage lights flashed into brilliance and after a brief introduction by a very energetic woman who bounced around the stage, the graduating actors were on the stage.
“Can someone give us a one-word suggestion to start from?” the bouncy woman asked the audience.
“Mexican restaurant!” someone shouted out of the darkness to a few titters of laughter. So based this one suggestion, the actors began building skits and monologues without any advance preparation. When they had an idea, they simply stepped forward into the center of the stage and began to develop their idea into reality. Sometimes, this development was quite natural, other times, it wasn’t.
Overall, it was very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. The performances ranged from silly to humorous, and often provided some very insightful and incisive commentary about human behavior, society and American politics. My friend, Jessica, played a homeless old man, the vice president of the United States, and a cruel mother who fed her five-year-old bulimic daughter solely on soup so the poor girl would remain thin and tiny. Jessica also stepped forward and performed a monologue, telling us a story about life in her hometown in Louisiana.
Afterwards, we all walked together to a local pub where everyone compared notes, dissected their performances outloud, and began planning to register for their next improv class. Jessica was disappointed with her performances, although I was unsure why this would be. I thought she did a fine job. It is true that she was a little nervous during the first 20 minutes or so (but all of her classmates were, too), and after they calmed down, their acting was really enjoyable to experience.
One thing that was especially interesting was following how the topic changed throughout the entire performance. It started out with the “mexican restaurant” suggestion, morphed into “don’t drink the water”, which of course, meant that one should instead drink the beer or other alcoholic beverage (the topic stalled on the topic of alcohol for quite awhile, in fact), then moved on to explore illegal drug use, vomiting, sex, marriage, prostitution and then ended on the topic of the casting couch.
The evolution of this one suggestion — “mexican restaurant” — into sex, drugs and alcohol reminded me of an experiment that I participated in when I was a kid. In this experiment, all of us kids — a grade school classroom of roughly 20 of us — stood with our backs against the wall and repeated a whispered “secret” that we were told by one kid to the next kid down the line. The last kid then stood forward and repeated the “secret” aloud and compared this to the written note that contained the original “secret” that we had been repeating. Wow. In short, the final “secret” bore almost no resemblance whatsoever to the original written message that we were to repeat. This final “secret” had also morphed from a relatively innocuous beginning into something that was much more .. er, interesting.
This was a valuable lesson illustrating the general reliability of gossip, but it also is a powerful illustration of the fundamentals of how small changes, or mutations, result in evolution of a new form. This improv performance was interesting and thought-provoking at several levels.
And Jessica, if you are reading this, repeat after me: I DID FINE!

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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Improv Theatre Recalls Evolution of a Meme

  1. Coturnix says:

    Chinese Whispers? We call it “broken telephones” in Serbian language.

  2. ah yes, thanks for the reminder. when i played that game, it was called “the telephone game.”

  3. biosparite says:

    When serious grownups play, it’s called “building the case for the Iraqi war.”

  4. David Harmon says:

    Being hard-of-hearing, I could never play “telephone”… I couldn’t make out enough of the whisper even to get a coherent pass-along. 😦

  5. gyges77 says:

    I believe you witnessed not the evolution of a meme (mexican restaurant), but the existence of a memeplex. Nice to meet Jessica too.