Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Togetherness is Put to the Test in "Don’t Think Twice"

Don’t Think Twice sounds like a Bob Dylan song, which of course it is. But it’s also a clever little feature film, the kind of indie that combines humor with heart, about the inner workings of a New York improv troupe. (The title comes from a legendary improv precept: Don’t think.) The Commune is made up of six close-knit performers: a pretty young woman, a not-so-pretty young woman, a waif, a steady guy, an insecure nerd, and a zany named Jack. All are adept at making stage magic out of thin air, but after eleven years they’re not gaining much ground, either artistically or financially. Says one, “Your 20s are all about hope, and your 30s are all about how dumb it is to hope.” Then, just as they’re being booted from their long-time theatre space, Jack (played by Keegan-Michael Key of  Key and Peele) is invited to join the celebrated cast of TV’s Weekend Live. Suddenly the troupe’s us-against-the-world spirit seems to have sustained a death blow.

Personally, I’ve always loved improv. Decades ago, when I was part of the dating scene, a favorite destination was the Sunset Strip’s Tiffany Theatre, where a troupe called The Committee held sway. I used to laugh myself silly when they pantomimed a death-defying trapeze act called The Flying Walloons, while never actually leaving the ground. But they were equally adept at responding on the fly to audience suggestions. My absolute favorite committee member was Howard Hesseman, who for some reason performed under the name Don Sturdy, before going on to a solid career in TV comedy.

Years later, I was lucky to interview a troupe led by improv guru Paul Sills. Such talented wackos as Richard Libertini, Hamilton Camp, Richard Schaal, and Avery Schreiber all vied humorously with one another to see who could sound most pretentious on my tape recorder. In performance, though, they seamlessly worked together, turning simple prompts from Sills or the audience into complicated performance art before our eyes. On the night I attended a Sills & Company show, the troupe was welcoming a special guest performer, none other than Robin Williams. Williams was, of course, brilliant in his own eccentric way, but he seemed unwilling, or unable, to function as one of the gang. He lacked the ability of the others to work as a unit, blending into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

It is that tension between the group dynamic and the power of individual ambition that is explored by Don’t Think Twice. When Ben Stiller (playing himself) attends a performance and goes out with the cast afterward, their fawning desperation isn’t pretty to watch. But writer-director-cast member Mike Birbiglia, when speaking to aspiring artistses, tends to focus on inspiration rather than despair. In fact, he’s come up with six tips for those eager to make it (somehow) in the dramatic arts. Here they are, in brief:

(1) Don’t Wait – try doing something, anything, NOW

(2) Fail – you won’t ever succeed without a lot of less-than-excellent attempts

(3) Learn From Failureideally by finding a supportive community

(4) Maybe Quit – be honest about your abilities and your chances

(6) CLEVERNESS IS OVERRATED, AND HEART IS UNDERRATED – Here’s what Birbiglia himself adds to this point: “Plus, there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, ‘One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.’ I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.”

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