March 9th, 2010


Learn From the Best; Learn From the Worst: A TnT Memoir

It’s been two years since I last appeared in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. I think that’s enough time; it should be safe to talk about some things now, particularly as the show itself has finally closed after a remarkable 16-year run. In fairness, I should note that the company still exists. They still do a touring version, and they may reopen the show for the Christmas holidays. I should also note that I still have a lot of friends who are in the pipeline to perform in the show, so to any of them who are reading this – any disparaging remarks you may read in the following are certainly not about any of you guys! No, really – would I lie to you?

A show like TnT is a bit of a square peg in the theater world. Parts of it are tightly scripted, while other parts are completely improvised, and if it’s done right, the audience won’t always know which is which. One result of this is that Script Purists tend to look down on it on account of its loosely improvisational air, while Improv Purists tend to look down on it for playing fast and loose with the academic rules of improv.

But there’s another reason for Improv Purists to look down on TnT, which is that many of the actors in it are really dreadful at improv. It takes a certain kind of performer to excel at a show like TnT. There are plenty of actors who you might love to have in a conventional, scripted play who can’t improvise a line to save their lives. At the same time, I’ve seen theatrical neophytes walk in the door at TnT and become masters of the form.

The most common improvisational failing in the TnT world is the sin of only making negative choices. Typical example: Q: “How are you doing tonight?” A: “Lousy! The food tastes like crap and you’re being an asshole!” The questioner is left with several distasteful options with regard to a response. He could 1) Walk away and refuse to deal with the situation; 2) Try to be a voice of reason and calm down the other person, which will only result in more insults being hurled out as the shouter plays the only note they know how to play; or 3) Start bickering back at them in an equally negative manner. In any case, nothing of interest results; the scene has begun at its ending point and stayed there.

Here’s a specific example from my own experience of a more interesting way to deal with an improvised moment. It happened between myself as Father Mark and an exceptionally fine Sister Terry. Late in the show, Father Mark gets drunk and begins to exhibit quite another side of his personality. On one particular night, an improv between myself and Terry led to Mark making disparaging remarks about Special Needs children, and even using the very incorrect term “retard.” Terry replied in a shocked and meek, yet principled tone of voice that this was simply not a correct term. “Oh you’re right,” Mark replied, calmer but still quite soused, “I believe they prefer the abbreviation, ‘tard.’” Terry continued to press her point about the inappropriateness of Mark’s comment, but with a certain nuanced, frightened respectfulness. It made for a genuinely interesting interplay between the two characters.

More commonly, the actresses playing Sister Terry would simply have responded with a loud insult or a broad exchange of general abuse, all of which may provide a short-term adrenaline rush for the audience and actors, but which becomes tiresome rather quickly. At the other end of the spectrum, we might see a Terry who expressed a general shock but had no specific response upon which to build a scene.

I should also note that the fine Sister Terry to whom I referred has become a very busy performer and has been getting cast in good roles and getting very positive notices in the local press. I’m happy to say that I’m not the least bit surprised!

Our director occasionally reminded us that this cast was largely made up of characters who loved one another, and that we should never forget to include that love in our performances. I thought it was perhaps the best single note he ever gave us and I wish more of the cast would have taken those words to heart.

A good example of an actor taking this note to heart could be seen in one woman who sometimes played Mrs. Vitale, the mother of the bride. On a few occasions, she responded to the DJ playing a certain song by suddenly turning to her son Joey Vitale and improvising a tender moment of the significance of that song to both of them. It was a sweetly amusing moment, the likes of which occurred far too infrequently – far more interesting than the “Look at me!” school of obnoxious, selfish improv that too often dominated the room.

So how was TnT able to survive and thrive even when populated by a lot of performers with negligible skills, either as actors, as improvisationalists, or both? There are several ways in which to answer that question. One answer is that it WASN’T able to survive. Yes, after a 16-year run, the closing of TnT was inevitable, but I have little doubt that its end was hastened by its gradual transformation into a sloppy show with essentially no one at the wheel to insist upon high standards and consistency. I saw where it was headed several years ago, and that helped usher me out the door a little sooner than I might otherwise have gone. Still, even up to the end, there were nights when many patrons went away utterly knocked out by the experience, feeling as if they’d witnessed, and been a part of, a grand spectacle unlike any other. Explaining THAT phenomenon is a bit trickier.

I think it has to do with the basic structure of the show as a complete environmental event, as well as the ideal performing space at Chicago’s Piper’s Alley. It also has to do with the fact that not everyone in the show sucked – there were still some inventive and committed performers involved in the show right up to the end.

But even with all of that, the show was no longer close to what it had been – an evening of focused, audacious entertainment that you came to see, got knocked out by, and then came back the following month along with a group of friends to see it again. And after so many years, the market had become somewhat saturated – most of the people who really wanted to see it had already seen it.

Now that some time has passed, I am more acutely aware than ever of another aspect of the show for me personally, and that’s all the people I’ve met and worked with through TnT. I’m in touch with many of them on a regular basis, and a few of them remain truly close friends. In addition, the contacts I now find myself with in the wider theatrical world because of TnT will continue to affect my life for many years to come. As always, thanks go to FP for taking the trouble to spend 2 years nagging me to audition for the show!
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