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The Wonderful Bag

posted by Allen Gilmore on Wed, Dec 24, 2008
in Backstage buzz

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Hey there, blog enthusiasts--

I'm Allen and I play a few roles in The Arabian Nights, which is playing until Jan 18 at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage.

I've been wondering what to write about that may bring you further into our experience as actors performing the show. Finally however, one subject has stood towering over the rest: THE BAG.

If you've seen the show, you know that "The Wonderful Bag" is an improvisation performed by two different members of the ensemble at each show. It is a source of fear and glory for us. A little piece of theatrical derring-do that can send an audience--and us, the actors--into throes of ecstacy or leave both groups scratching our heads and wondering, "What was that?" Well, that's what our adaptor-director, Mary Zimmerman, knew it would be, and so we, the acting ensemble, are being true to her vision--to a point.

Mary intended that all of us at one time or another find ourselves in the position of needing to save ourselves with a story before a very judgmental listener, much like Scheherezade does in front of the king, Sharyar, who wishes to kill her. We must pull a story (a list) out of our minds at an instant in front of our live audience and hope it is something that may please, distract, and/or otherwise engage them. The two improvisers for "the wonderful bag" are selected at random every night--the actor telling the tale of the bag throws it into the air, and the two people it lands closest to are the ones recruited.

Magic bag 
The cast of The Arabian Nights watches Evan Zes (standing, at left) 
defends the contents of his magic bag. At right, Ramiz Monsef prepares for his turn.
(photo courtesy of kevinberne.com)

Now, none of us are seasoned improv artists like you may have seen on comic improv shows on TV. In fact, all of us find the prospect of doing this rather terrifying. But it's part of the show, so we dive in and sink or swim. I personally know about the swimming and the sinking, having done both. When your little improvised list of absurd items in the bag goes well, as one fellow castmate put it, you are on the most euphoric high for the rest of the evening. But then it's over and you must perform the improv again soon and pray that you don't bomb, and yet you are faced with equaling or topping your own prior success.

When you bomb, it's a lonely feeling in the dressing room. People are very kind but you know you dropped the ball, putting that particular performance somewhat at risk and injuring your pride all at once--in public. For this reason, some of us prefer not to do The Bag very often, though we have all (who are eligible to do it) done it at one time or other and all of us have most often met with success. In fact, some of our finest bags have been performed by members who rarely do it. Meanwhile, practice does make perfect and those who do The Bag more often find it easier to do and are less daunted by the prospect. They get out there with a sense of ease and purpose and sometimes they can even feel eager to do the improv. These "bag veterans" can be absolutely brilliant. If you've seen them at work, then you know what I mean.

Having failed at The Bag at least once myself, I can tell you that's a moment unlike any other. The audience simply isn't with you. They do not respond as you make your list, or you may go down a subject path that is a turn-off to them. You can hear the "Ooooo's" and "Ohhhh's" and you know you need to turn around fast and find something that brings them back. Or you may simply need to end your list and hope the other performer has better luck. Or perhaps "The Kadi" will put you out of your misery by ending the improv for you. A lot of savvy goes into doing The Bag, particularly with a less responsive audience. We are constantly listening to the crowd's reactions during the show and making decisions based on their prior responses. With a less vocal audience, the bagger already knows that he or she may have to be a sacrificial lamb and "take one for the team" when the bag is tossed into the air and lands at her or his feet.

There are a couple of ways we do The Bag. Mary Z. may not like one of these because it violates slightly the idea of The Bag. Some of us have ideas already in mind that we hope to be calm enough to recall and explore under the pressure of performance. But others do a more 'pure bag' which is actually having no idea what you are going to say or do when you rise to begin your list of absurdities found in the bag. I think Mary would prefer this method, but it proves too scary to many of the most veteran bag improvisers. Also, we may sometimes "reference" or "steal" an idea from a prior bag improv of our own or someone else's. Mary would like each bag to be completely new, but some ideas are so rich and full of potential that some of us can't help giving them more exploration. Finally, The Bag should be a list of items found in the bag. We have had many absolutely brilliant, hysterically funny bag improvs that have more or less failed this task. Because we (may) make little explanations of certain items as we list them, some of us have found the explanations more engaging than the listing and tend to veer off into story-telling that finally verges on stand-up comedy. Audiences love this when it's well done, and it's been expertly done at some performances. This however, more than anything, would be a source of frustration to our director regarding The Bag. We have even met together recently to get back on track as an ensemble with The Bag and to ensure that future bags are to the director's specifications, so that future baggers feel safe and supported when they delve into the wacky mysteries of The Bag.

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