The house lights dim, the stage lights come up. Six actors stand onstage without a single clue about what is going to occur next. They didn’t rehearse, they don’t even know their lines. In point of fact, they don’t even have lines. What sounds like imminent theatrical disaster is actually the perfect setting for a night of improvised comedy — the specialty of Bay Area-based theater troupe Revolving Madness.
Next Friday at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station, the sextet of twenty-somethings (Christina Daly, Mike Michalske, Michael Phillis, Lauren Pizzi, Elizabeth Rawls and Andreas Riter) perform on-the-spot, long-form comedy that has never been seen before and will never be seen again.
“If you do a play your script is always there and it never changes, that’s your script, that’s what you go with. For this, when it’s over it’s done, it’s gone forever. We don’t repeat things. It’s like a big taboo — we just do not repeat things,” said Michalske, during a recent group interview at a downtown San Francisco diner. The actors had wrangled a rehearsal studio for the week near the city’s theater district — a long way from the University of California at Santa Barbara where the six studied theater together as undergraduates.
There, the fledgling group had the good fortune of studying with Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, a veritable god to fans of sketch comedy, who proved to be a generous mentor to the group he called “a very funny, talented bunch of ruffians.”
“It was scary, I spent the first two days with an ear to ear grin. John worked closely with us, often one on one. He was very encouraging and always had positive feedback. We were his first real teaching experience,” says Rawls, who grew up in Sonoma. “John told me I was funny and I haven’t been the same since.”
After graduating, the group mustered the gumption to pack up their belongings and collectively move to San Francisco with the aim of starting the theater company that would become Revolving Madness, which celebrates its first birthday this summer.
“Our delusions of grandeur got us up here. We were naive that’s why we had the guts to do it,” says dark-haired Daly.
Now the group manages to rehearse twice a week despite day jobs and other obligations. Their hard won commitment rivals that of most new rock bands, which, as Rawls explains is sometimes seems like an analogous endeavor.
“It’s like a band staring out — that’ kind of the model. Some bands develop a cult following by playing shows in their friends’ apartments. That’s what I want — I want a cult following,” she snickers. “That’s something we can do with acting — but with the spirit of a rock band.”
“You want to be a cult leader,” Michalske lobs and the gang breaks into laughter over platters of French fries and a cruet of malt vinegar.
The easy camaraderie between the troupe members is the result of the concentrated hours they have spent honing their craft. They joke that had they not become an acting troupe it’s very likely they would not have mixed socially.
“What’s attractive about working together is that we spent three years working everyday, all day long we have a common vocabulary and language. I know Andreas’ training, I know the journey that Elizabeth went through over those three years there’s a short hand. It’s easy to get going,” says Pizzi, a native of San Rafael. “We come from the same mutated gene pool.”
Gene pool or small pond? The question looms as to why the group forewent setting up shop in Los Angeles or New York, locales better known as entertainment epicenters.
“We’d been to LA and lot of us are from the Bay Area or near the Bay Area. We had talk about Chicago and New York and those kinds of places, but I think the main reason San Francisco appealed to us is because it is such and eclectic and accepting city in terms of the arts,” says Riter, whose matinee idol looks bring the tune “You Oughta’ Be in Pictures” to mind.
Michalske reminds that the group has long fostered a do-it-yourself attitude, which has enabled them to not only persevere in an admittedly difficult trade, but flourish. Since its inception Revolving Madness has performed several shows including the occasional corporate gig.
“The one thing that people told us repeatedly in college ‘If you want to work, start your own theater company. If you want to be an actor you have to make your own work — it’s the only way you’re going to have success.’ We had a great thing going. It just seemed to stupid to have come so far and not continue,” says Michalske. “None of us wanted to be waiters who were trying to be actors. We wanted to be actors who happened to be waiters in our spare time.”
The diligence has paid off. Revolving Madness onstage antics are so well-hewn many audience members refuse to believe the performances are unscripted.
“A lot of people just don’t think that it’s improv. They will be watching it and laughing, but the shock comes afterward when they say ‘So, you came up with that idea before, right? You knew who you were going to play,’ and we say ‘No, it’s all improvised.’ We’ve never played those characters, we never talk before hand,” says Phillis. “A lot of times you’ll get grabbed onstage and not know who you are at first but you just trust that whoever does the grabbing knows what to do. There’s a give and take — but we also have ‘fall and catch.’ Just fall and somebody will catch you.”
Moreover, the “cardinal rule” of improv, explains Pizzi is to “Never say no.”
“You have to say ‘yes’ to everything even if it comes out verbally as ‘no.’ That’s the idea.”
As Michalske says, by way of an example, “I like to add color to scenes and Andreas likes to come straight out of left field and throw you a curve ball to see how you handle it. It’s fun for the actor and it’s really fun for the audience to watch. ‘Ooh, he got it good!”
“But you hit it back,” says Daly.
“Then I mumble dry one-liners under my breath,” says Rawls, eliciting laughter from the group.
One of the hazards of being funny is that the players themselves often come to the verge of cracking up during a performance.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about improv — you’re not necessarily breaking character because it’s so ridiculous and the fact that it’s live in that moment — the audience is with you and it makes them laugh even harder,” says Phillis. “It reminds them that this is all new to us too. We’re always onstage, always on the sidelines, we never go backstage or hide. We’re present in that moment. And you never know when you’re going to go on.”
The troupe’s Friday performance is bookended by appearances in San Francisco the Thursday prior and Saturday after. The group is excited to be performing back to back shows, but reminds it’s not as glamorous as simply taking to the stage.
The members of Revolving Madness have to each wear several hats when producing a show.
“We are the show,” says Daly. “We are the producers, directors, actors and concessionaires. We’re going to mop the floor up afterwards.”
Her expression turns reflective as she sighs “These are times we’ll remark on ten years down the road when were successful and doing what we want to be doing.”
To which Rawls dryly adds “And I’ll have my cult and my groupies.”
“And a business manager,” says Michalske, eyeballing the check.
Revolving Madness will present “Once…Twice…Three Times the Improv”,
an evening of Improvisation as part of a three day, three venue tour, May 26-28. “Once, Twice, Three Times the Improv” plays at the C.A.F.E off Market Theater Thursday May 26th at 8:00pm, The Point Reyes Dance Palace Friday May 27th at 8:00pm and the Phoenix Theater Saturday May 28th at 10:30pm. For reservations or more information call 415-246-3241.
A version of this article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.