Nigel Downer is a Toronto Mainstage alum and director of The Bob Curry Fellowship Showcase.
Spring is allegedly upon us, and with it, the season of music festivals commences! America’s highways will be crowded once more with the telltale white 15-passenger vans pulling trailers covered in stupid stickers. Every spring, bands of sometimes-talented, sweaty, malnourished, 20-somethings (and the 40-somethings who are still interested in the shenanigans of the 20-somethings) take to the open road to prove their worth to performatively disinterested teenagers and soak in the ambiance of the plain states.
You might be asking yourself, “What the crap does this have to do with me? I’m an improviser!”
After a year on the road living in a van with a band, I have discovered a lot of common ground. Here are 6 ways improvising is a lot like touring with a band.
6. You don’t traditionally “grocery shop.”
Band Member: You’ve got no time to get groceries like a regular person and nowhere to prepare food but your lap (it’s frowned upon to use the band’s computer as a countertop I’M SORRY ABOUT THE MAYONNAISE). No matter how sweaty your thighs are on that pleather bench seat, they cannot properly bake a potato. This leads to optimistically reading the ingredients listed on a packet of Corn Nuts in search of nourishing elements like corn, or nuts (nope), and a belief that V8 and a Slim Jim is a well-rounded (Paleo!) meal.
Improviser: Your diet is a happenstance assemblage of found items, snacks procured at Walgreens where you went to buy a tie/pantyhose, and fast food outposts you’ve grown to hate (“brown rice, both kinds of beans, and no meat, please”). Any instance of you getting it together and actually making it to the Jewel is celebrated by binge-eating foods of interest on your way home from the Jewel and regrettably throwing away a ton of rotting vegetables a couple of weeks later.
5. You perform unspeakable acts of public restroom hygiene.
Band Member: Out on the open road, you’ve not only taken– but very much looked forward to– a bath in a McDonald’s sink while your bandmate(s) stood guard outside the bathroom door. Those bottles rolling around on the floor of the van… are… lemonade. But we’re saving them, so maybe just leave them alone and don’t think about it.
Improviser: You’ve performed at least a couple (dozen) “too-far” acts of personal hygiene in the Piper’s Alley bathroom. If you’re a lady who hasn’t been at least momentarily barefoot in there, I want to know your secret. You’ve also wondered who’s allowed to use that shower in the Skybox faculty bathroom.
4. You’ve got to roll with the group’s (bad) choices.
Band Member: Your bassist decided the tour would be a great time to try The Master Cleanse.
Improviser: A member of your Harold team is no longer going to smother his armpits in cancerous deodorant.
Both of the Above: Did you know that shampoo is actually totally unnecessary?! These people are your strange, chosen family. And like only family can, they make your life (smell) terrible and provoke some of the weirdest fights ever with their senseless personal choices.
3. Your destination is the loudest, most neurotic place on Earth.
Band Member: Rock concerts are loud, and musicians are often fragile wildflowers. Duh. But never is this more evident than at large festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza. Meandering about any of these grounds is like trying to scale a wall of indecipherable sound shellac-attacked with slick, palpable desperation.
Improviser: Ask yourself, “Hmm, where in my improv journey have I encountered such an environment?” If you don’t immediately answer “Piper’s Alley. 4th floor,” then you’re the one doing “PLEASE GOD, SOMEBODY LOVE ME!” bits at an 11. WE NOTICED. Now knock it off.
2. You play ridiculous venues with zeal.
The Whole Band: Of COURSE we want to play a secret show in the dressing rooms at Urban Outfitters! Are you kidding me?! DREAM COME TRUE! This is why we traveled hundreds of miles in an un-airconditioned van with a tape deck!
The Whole Improv Team: Of COURSE we want to play a midnight, mid-week show at a bar in Humboldt Park! This is why we moved to Chicago! WE’RE DOING IT! Who’s going to call their parents first?!
1. You’re most comfortable when you’re completely uncomfortable.
Band Member: From your wistful memories of really great van sleeping positions (the secret is to put your legs to sleep first, then fold them up in the seat belt and string ‘em up like a ham) to firmly believing that peanut butter just tastes better when it’s spread on a tortilla with a broken CD, you find that the comforts of home can’t compete with your new longing for the discomforts that come with being a Legendary Road Dog (#pleasesomeonemakethisvideogame) in an almost-famous band.
Improviser: We, too, have become addicted to discomfort. It leads us to all of the best places! I started the scene by saying, “Hey mom, I hope it’s okay that I brought a friend for dinner.” And Nancy (the friend I was referring to) said, “Yeah! I’m Camille! I’m a chicken!” Was it uncomfortable? Yes, especially since I almost ruined my pants. Did it turn out that my chicken friend Camille sang a stirring song of longing culminating in being adopted into my family? Did the house unravel into crying laughter? Absolutely. Standing in front of strangers with no idea what we’re going to do or say while deeply hoping that they will laugh at us is uncomfortable.
Both of the above: And it feels like home.
Liz Joynt Sandberg is a Chicago-based writer and performer. She’s a graduate of the Music Improv program at The Second City Training Center and currently performs with Infinite Sundaes: An Official House Ensemble of The Second City Training Center and around town with her wonderful friends. Find out more at lizjoyntsandberg.com.