Soaps without a safety net

Writer guest stars on Dirty Laundry the improvised soap opera

My mom gets nervous when she watches improv. It’s theatre without a safety net after all and she’s worried the performers will take a tumble. As I sit in the dark at Dirty Laundry the improvised soap opera waiting to go onstage I’m glad she’s not watching. I’m plenty nervous already.

Dirty Laundry is a pillar of local improv. For 14 years it’s had all the love triangles cliffhangers fake deaths and assorted absurdities that you’d see on a television soap opera… except it’s made up on the spot live onstage. This season is titled “Legal Briefs” and follows the scandalous antics of a sleazy law firm. The weekly episodes often feature guest stars… and tonight that’s me.

The cast is an assortment of veteran improvisers playing satirical characters like Crown prosecutor Sue Yerassoff and Danish pop star Das Booty. At the suggestion of director Aaron Coates I’m playing a character that’s been mentioned but never seen: Robert Wrights the estranged husband of paralegal Miranda Wrights.

I’ve spent the week memorizing details: our kids’ names our romantic history the tongue-twisting name of her law firm (Downey Downey Maytag & Ward) and mine (Alan Alan Shirley & Davis). Miranda and I are entangled in a bitter divorce and she suspects that I have money hidden in the Cayman Islands. Oh and — unbeknownst to me — Miranda is engaged to her new lover: Wesson Smith private investigator.

At the theatre after some warm-up games we descend on the dressing rooms in a flurry of costumes and makeup. I’ve brought my most “lawyerish” outfit; as I slick down my hair I suspect my lawyer friends would cringe at the portrayal.

Every show opens with “Hot 30s”: each performer takes the spotlight for 30 seconds to introduce their character. “It’s the scariest part of the night” confides one improviser.

We line up and one by one the cast members jump onstage to deliver short gems of hilarity. I’m up last. When my name is announced I take a deep breath and step out in front of the shadowy faceless crowd.

“My wife seems to think I’m living the high life off hidden bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. Ha!” I announce then adopt a pained expression. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to hide money in the Cayman Islands? I can’t keep track of who I’m bribing anymore!”

Amidst tepid laughter and scattered applause I scurry to my spot in the front row. Showtime.

Aaron is the grandmaster. He stares intently at the action onstage scribbling down notes then signals the end of a scene leans into his microphone and in a ringside announcer voice sets up the next one.

So that’s how I end up sitting in the dark tensing every time Aaron speaks excited and anxious to hear my name. Finally: “Miranda Wrights and her estranged husband Robert wait to pick up their youngest son Roscoe from preschool!”

I try to look calm collected and lawyer-ly as I walk onstage but I’m freaking out. What the hell should I say? Fortunately my scene partner sweeps me up in an argument. “You slept with the babysitter!” “So what? So did you!”

Just as things get heated there’s a knock at the door behind us. We freeze. “Roscoe? Sweetie is that you?” Miranda calls. The theatre goes quiet. After an agonizing moment from the front row an offstage improviser shouts “Mommy? The door is stuck!” We dive back into the scene distracting little Roscoe while we argue about hidden bank accounts and warring divorce agreements.

Backstage at intermission nobody knows who knocked. The best theory: during the Hot 30s the door was closed too hard and it popped into place during our scene. Theatre magic they call it: lovely moments onstage that you could never plan.

The second half is less daunting. We flash back to the hospital birth of our twins I go shoe shopping with a crime lord and finally Miranda is poised to sign the divorce agreement when I stop her. “Are things really so bad?” I ask. “After all it’s not like any of our affairs have been serious!” She drops the bombshell: she’s engaged to….

“Wesson Smith?” I exclaim. “You mean the private investigator I hired to incriminate you for our divorce case?”

Musical director Cam Ascroft obliges us with a swell of dramatic music: it’s a soap opera baby! The actor playing Wesson Smith isn’t here to defend himself so I’ve just made his life difficult for next week — the joys of episodic improv.

As I collapse in an exhausted puddle backstage I realize that Dirty Laundry does have a safety net. Even during the Hot 30 you’re not alone up there: the cast and crew have your back and the audience wants you to succeed. Next time I might even invite my mom.

Every month Mark Hopkins steps outside of his comfort zone and writes about the experience. Do you have an adventure to suggest? Email him at mark@swallowabicycle.com .