In exactly 28 hours, I will find myself on a stage in front of an audience for the first time in almost two years. This is a little unnerving for me, because the last time I did this I made a fool of myself.
True, the last time, that was rather the point. It was a goodbye party held for me at Theatre 99 in Charleston, where improv comedy is the specialty and foolishness is not just normal behavior but part of the house rules. Under ideal circumstances, foolishness of the improv comedy variety is accompanied by great loads of humor. Only in my case – a tongue-in-cheek interview by theatre owner and full-on comedy professional Greg Tavares – the comedy occurred all on one side of the stage (his) and the foolishness was pretty well confined to the other (mine). Also, it’s one thing making an idiot out of yourself on purpose, and quite another to do it unintentionally. People can tell the difference.
It’s not that I’ve got no experience on a stage in front of a live audience. I’ve performed hundreds of times in scores of theatrical roles – serious, comedic and everything in between. But being entertaining with the benefit of a director, lots of rehearsal, and someone else’s brilliant words in your mouth is altogether different from being entertaining on your own, on the fly. Whetever small gifts I may have as an actor pack their bags and vanish when I’m called upon to improvise. Give me a good script and a month, and I’ll make you pee your pants. But give me a microphone and a spotlight, and you will shortly wish you hadn’t.
In retrospect, I think the best I managed that evening at Theatre 99 was to come off as a slightly drunk, brainless buffoon to Greg’s straight act, which I achieved with surprising ease. Perhaps I had delusions of, at the very least, being laughed with rather than at. There was a lot of laughter, that much is sure. Fortunately, I was leaving Charleston the following week for what turned out to be a permanent relocation to Asia. This time, it won’t be so easy to walk away.
On Sunday evening at 6pm, I’ll step onto a stage at RMIT University and spend the next four hours as host and emcee of the school’s Couple of the Year Contest. Yes, go ahead, ask yourself what that is – what it possibly could be, what form a live love competition between Vietnamese students who are all members of the Business Club could take. And you will find yourself asking the same questions I did when I was invited to be the emcee.
How do you say no to an invitation like this? I’m not asking that rhetorically. Seriously, does anyone out there have any idea how I can squirm out of this thing? I’m starting to think about faking my own death.
It’s worse that the request came from my own students, who have somehow mistaken a comfortableness with classroom buffoonery in their lecturer for professional improvisational talent. I tried politely demurring – I had other plans, I had too much work, I had acute altitude sickness that prohibits me from standing on a stage, I have a phobia for phallic-shaped instruments that prevents me from using a microphone. I asked if they wanted a reference and gave them the number for Greg Tavares at Theatre 99. I intimated that a union contract required me to charge an impossible sum for my appearance. They promised me two free tickets.
There’s no getting out of it now. All week, students have been congratulating me on my yet-to-be-seen performance and telling me they’ll be in the front row. My name is on the poster (“Emceed by famous lecturer Mr. Patrick!”) It’s unlikely that I can count on the crowd being drunk and easily entertained; the only booze on hand will be what I bring in with me, and I’m going to need all of it.
No, the only thing that’s going to save me on this one is a miracle. Greg, are you out there? Can you catch a flight to Saigon in the next, say, 30 minutes? I’ve got the tab.