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  • Writer's pictureBrock St. Clair

Comedy, Comfort, and Cleghorne: an improv story

The Lovely™ Lab Rats™ with Dr.™ Ellen™ Cleghorne™. Also, Chris' legs.

So, Lab Rats (that improv troupe I'm a part of and love with all my heart) got the opportunity to work with Ellen Cleghorne this past week on a performance to raise funds for a safe shelter here in Starkville. It's an awesome cause (& a huge thank you to the incredible Kay Brocato for organizing it all), but I'm no good at being serious, so if you wanna know more about the Starkville Oktibbeha Civil Engagement Collaborative and their phenomenal initiative, check out this great piece from the Dispatch.

I, on the other hand, am writing this for three primary reasons:

1) To gloat.

2) To document this experience so future Brock can remember a valuable lesson about comedy & life he gleaned from Dr. Cleghorne's philosophy during an especially hectic week of performance.

3) Refer to 1.

We had two nights to prepare a show with Ellen (Monday & Wednesday). That was it. About four hours total. Prior to those two nights, we (Lab Rats) had never met Ellen, nor did we really know what the show was supposed to be about. In a short phone call right before she got to Starkville, Ellen simply said: "be thinking of very 'Mississippi' things we can satirize."

Listen: I'm a super high stress person. I like organization and structure. I've been this way since I discovered jigsaw puzzles in the third grade. One time I stress-dreamt so hard I woke up crying. The dream was about waking up late for work. In reality it was three in the morning. I was so deeply traumatized by the idea of waking up late I couldn't go back to sleep. It runs that deep.

All that in mind, when Ellen came to Lab Rats practice Monday night and had us run a long form improv exercise where we acted out each others lives for a full two hours, I was frustrated. This didn't seem to have anything to do with the show we needed to be preparing for. Not to mention Ellen insisted the entire troupe (~14 people) participate in every scene, which was theatrical chaos. Sharing focus on a stage with 13 other people, especially when no one knows what they're going to say, is a stress dream come to life.

Ellen must've seen the panic on my face during the exercise, because she called me out. I told her it's hard to maintain a coherent plot with so many different ideas on stage.

"Oh," she said, blank-faced, "you must be the adult of the group."

"The 'We are NEVER Having a Party at my House Again...' Only to Have the Next Party at His House Award," Fall 2018

That hit pretty hard. In part because I just got deep-fry roasted by Ellen Cleghorne in front of all my friends. But mostly because: yeah. I am kinda the adult of the group. I try too hard to control situations. That's probably why, at the annual Lab Rats Paper Plate Awards, I win titles like "Most Likely to Own a Mop" and the "'We are NEVER Having a Party at my House Again...' Only to Have the Next Party at his House" award (there's a lot of my personality to unpack in that one but in short it's like when your step dad gets mad that you skipped school but let's you get away with it a bunch of times because he wants to be the ~cool~ step dad).

In improv, there are no wrong choices; that's what Ellen was trying to emphasize with her exercise. You may lose track of the direction you thought the scene was headed, but that doesn't mean there isn't a new direction you can take it. Improv is like a free-fall where everyone in the scene is trying to stitch a parachute together. If you don't trust that your scene partners will do their share, and you let that distract you, splat.

"The Most Likely to Own a Mop Award," Spring 2018

I didn't trust my scene partners.

It's ironic, because I often don't trust myself in an improv scene, but it's no less true. I've always held on to control too tightly, which is one of the major reasons I've enjoyed pursuing improv for the last two years: it pushed me out of my comfort zone. However, since I broke free of that and started performing, I think I believed "okay, comfort zone is over. I'm out of it. Way to go, me." But I was wrong. Preparing for Ellen's show made me realize I still have a whole lot of comfort zone to break through. It's frustrating -- and exciting.

I talk about comfort zones a lot. I'm sure people are tired of hearing it; I know I am. But no matter what problem I face in my pursuit of a comedy career, it almost always comes back to being stuck in a comfort zone. This past week was a great reminder of that.

On Thursday, the crowd almost laughed as hard as we did. Chaos is uncomfortable, but y'know what's more uncomfortable? Public embarrassment. So get over it, you've got a show to do.

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