Matthew Stewardson, Debbie Brown
However the recent untimely death of an old friend gave me cause to dig out the picture above, and reflect on a very happy period in my past, and the people that went on that journey with me.
The nine faces above were all part of an improvisational comedy team Comic Bytes - Comedy under Construction (“under construction”, see? Hence the profoundly unflattering overalls we wore). There were others: over the four or five years we performed together, there were probably 15 or 20 of us at any given time. Don’t ask me how we got together. Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with the arts in South Africa knows that there are about fifty people involved and they all went to university together or did a pantomime together or were married to each other’s brothers. I’ve given up trying to explain to my husband how I know so many people and from where. I just say, “She’s South African” and he nods.
If you’re wondering what improvisational comedy is, you may have seen the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, or the Comedy Store Players in action. Basically, you have a team of three or four actors, and usually an MC. You have set game structures, and you ask the audience for suggestions and make scenes up on the spot. Some people take improv very seriously and train for months and critique one another. They aim to seek truth, to build coherent stories, to make meaningful connections. We did it for cash and giggles. We’d gather once a week in my big kitchen in Randburg and practise. Matt, my son, then about five, would come up with suggestions and we’d try new games, embroider on old ones and spend a lot of time falling about laughing at our own wit. Then we’d unleash ourselves on the public. We had a few great regular gigs: The Bassline was a jazz bar in Melville, which attracted an intellectual crowd who liked lateral humour and wordplay. Wings Beat Bar was a student music venue where we played every Tuesday night forever. There, our regular groupies, the Wits Underwater Hockey Club (I’m not making this up, they really exist) shouted the same suggestions every week and enjoyed a good knob joke and the cheap beer. And of course the Punchline Pub at the Civic Theatre and Hysterix Comedy Club were our regular haunts. At one point we were fielding teams six nights a week around Johannesburg, and let me tell you, that’s a satisfying amount of cash and giggles.
So what was it like? Before you stepped onstage, there was just no way of knowing. What suggestions would the audience throw at you? How would your fellow actors respond? With only the barest of outlines, every single show was in the laps of the gods. For some people, that sounds like the most terrifying prospect they can imagine. For me, it’s the most fun I’ve had with my overalls on in many a year.
You see, we knew what we were doing. Or we thought we did. We had a set of techniques, the ability to think on our feet, a sense of complete trust in one another, and absolutely no fear. The more we played, the braver we got. We started each show with an improvised poem. We’d ask the audience for a first line and a last line and we’d make up a poem, each saying a line, swapping places in each verse and completing a poem that made sense, scanned, rhymed and finished neatly on the line the audience had supplied. After a while, that seemed pretty easy, so we’d improvise haikus, syllable by syllable. We’d do sonnets, complete with iambic pentameter and a perfect rhyme scheme. We’d make up songs dedicated to an audience member, we’d perform scenes where each line started with the next letter of the alphabet, we’d play a frankly insane game called Superheroes, where as you stepped onstage, the performer before you would endow you with a character. You’ve never known fear until you’ve had to play Rhyming Couplet Woman, or Dyslexic Epileptic Man (we weren’t so much for the political correctness, either).
And we thought it was easy. Don’t get me wrong… not everyone can do it. There were loads of people who gave it a go and never made it out of the rehearsal room. But the core Comic Bytes team kept going on a few basic rules. The first two were:
- Anything is funnier if you’re wearing two sets of underwear (True. Don’t ask me why)
- Anything is funnier when you say it on all fours.
And the golden rule, the rule that made it all possible was this. Don’t say no. Go for it. If someone offers you an idea, run with it. Develop on it, take it in another direction by all means, but say yes. Jump in. Swim. And looking at that picture, fourteen years after it was taken, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart to my fellow Comic Byters, for this most valuable life lesson.
Seven years ago, I was at a dinner party, chatting to someone I’d just met. I mentioned that I was thinking of starting to write a novel. “Ah,” he said, “You’ll need index cards. You need to write all your ideas on index cards so you can shuffle them around.”
For about a week, I kept saying to myself, “I must go and buy index cards.” But for some reason, I didn’t. Then one day, I was on a train with two hours to kill and my laptop. And I started to write. I had no idea where the book was going…all I had in my head was an opening scene. But I just started, and three months later, I finished. And you know what? I realised I'm not an index card kind of person. I’m a leap in, start creating and see where you end up kind of person. It works. It’s all too easy to sit on the side of the metaphorical pool and think of all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something, or all the things you need to do before you do something. But sometimes, you just have to, in the words of one of my university lecturers, take your balls in your hands and walk forward.
It’s been some years since I got to don my sexy green overalls and leap into the unknown. The Comic Byters have scattered across the globe: Tia’s a singing diva in Italy, Shane and Debbie just moved across Canada with baby James, and Matthew, well, Matthew’s gone where none of us can reach him. I miss them all. And I hope they’ve all kept just a little bit of that crazy, fearless magic alive in their hearts.
(Dedicated to the memory of Matthew Stewardson 11/12/74-10/12/10)