Forty years ago I walked nervously up a curving metal staircase, across an empty lobby, into a darkened theater. I found a seat with a shadowy, scraggly bunch at a nightclub table in the cold room. Blank-faced and terrified, we all stared up at the bright stage and the six empty bentwood chairs.
All of us auditioning that day knew—or suspected, or hoped—that deep inside us were really funny, actually hysterically funny, people. Our ships had plowed the turbulent waters of 1960s America and we had just just pulled into the harbor. Here, Chicago’s “Statue of Liberty”, Second City, promised that all us funny people might just finally actually be free, oh, lordy, free at last. Free to be funny for money. (Which really meant working at the top of your intelligence and getting paid for it.)
Last week I watched another group of players read through some scenes from their new show, Mixed Nuts. Here’s the rub: These aren’t 20-somethings washing up on comedy’s shore, they’re “seasoned” players, average age around 65. They’ve been there, done that, and guess what? They know darn well what’s smart and funny and they’re dishing it out, or rather, serving it up, like a gourmet meal from the galley, for their friends and family on deck.
Over the past several months, the group’s savvy director, Donna Blue Lachman, coached this group through a series of improvisational workshops. It’s a sure-fire Second City-inspired way to originate material from people's lives. The players expose their hopes, fears, faux pas, and moments when their hearts collided with someone else’s reality. With a clear ear, a keen sense of story, and a kind touch (which frankly, I’ve only seen from female directors) Ms. Blue Lachman has developed these “found moments” into a kick-ass show.
Last week I watched some of the cast members rehearse several scenes.
In one, Mary McPherson played an uptight lady hiring Bunny Fisher, a noted interior decorator. It’s really about our tightly-held racial prejudices. Both women are talented and funny. Their timing is superb—maybe that’s something we learn from life. These oldies-but-goodies also seemed to have the ability to incorporate the director’s suggestions without batting an eye. It was great to see women of a certain age being real, vital human beings, not dusty old remaindered books.
The other scene featured Mary and (her stage sister) Dani Lane sorting through the left-behind lives in their deceased parents’ attic. In a brilliant move, the women’s dead mother (Sally Mason) watches the scene from the beyond and can’t help interjecting thoughts and commands that her girls clearly ignored many years before, and can’t possibly hear now.
The detritus of parents’ lives is the catalyst for the sisters—whose own lives have taken distinctively different turns—to rage, to cry, to hug. Dani Lane was brilliant as usual. Mary McPherson has the timing of an acrobat. And Sally Mason breathes real life into her character. For the audience, the scene is a catalyst to embrace the choices we’ve made. As the dead mother reviews the paths she didn’t take, we realize that every minute we’re alive we can still make choices that will rocket our lives down different paths. Or not.
As scenes developed from the improvisational workshops, the director made several excellent decisions: the players would retain their own names, and their characters (aspects of themselves) from scene to scene. Thus, as constructed, the individual stories of the scenes combine to make up another whole story, which we call a “play.”
Before this show, both Lachman and Lane had directed teenagers and admitted they were kind of fed up with the careless manner the kids treated the professionals dedicated to helping them put on shows. They both wanted to work with people who told true stories they knew were funny and valuable—who would also show up and work hard.
At Second City we were trained not to make fun of people who were weaker than ourselves. While the more powerful folks were fair game, the best butts of any jokes would always be ourselves. Donna Blue and her cast of a certain age got it right.
Just by performing their homemade show, the players encourage us to value our own experiences, to find humor in our foibles, and to gently and hilariously share our lessons learned with others.
I visited a nursing home once, where apartment doors sported photos of residents when they were young and beautiful. Today, when you still think of yourself as a bright and sassy twenty-three year-old, you can’t go around with a sign on your head that says, “I used to be kind of good looking and relatively interesting.” Nobody can. You have to go to extra lengths to find those people. The Mixed Nuts put in the extra effort to find each other and connect. Surprise, surprise: they left the 23-year-olds in the dust.
Donna Blue Lachman has worked as a playwright, actor, director and teacher for almost 40 years. She’s won all kinds of awards for her stage and television work. She has developed her own plays and performed them all over the world. Dani Lane is a graphic artist, actor and producer; Bunny Fisher is a jazz singer and photo rep, Sally Mason worked as documentary creator and producer for libraries across the country. Mary McPherson plays golf, Michael Davis is an art director, Ric Heath owns and operates a beauty salon, Al Ancel works in addiction recovery, Melinda Bush is a social worker.
The project is funded through the Pokagon Fund (the folks who run the Four Winds Casino Resort in New Buffalo, Mi.). Pokagon gives back to the community some of its profits, funding the arts, community food relief and programs for kids.