True Lies

Sometimes, it’s the unintentional complements that mean the most. You know kind words are genuine when someone doesn’t even realize they’re offering them.

We’ve been experimenting with a new format in the improv troupe I’m part of, Face2Face. If you’ve never seen us, our usual style is short, “game”-based comedy improv, like they did on the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Lately, though, we’ve been working on something new to add to our reportoire. We’ve been working towards doing “long-form” improv, basically entire plays that we make up as we perform them. We tried it at our show Friday, and did basically a 20-minute play. At rehearsal last week, we kind of stumbled into a series if scenes that turned into a story that lasted an hour or two, and was simply amazing.

We’re very much still developing this, and are constantly experimenting with new ideas and approaches. Each time we do it, it feels a little bit different. It’s fun experiencing the different possibilities, and also seeing the impact that different changes have.

Monday night, we tried another new-ish approach; having a member of the troupe perform a monologue that then inspired the scenes in the long-form exercise. We’ve used monolgue intros before, but for different purposes.

I volunteered to do a monologue, and was given the one-word suggestion “fire-fighting” to work from. I decided to draw a little bit from my newspaper days as inspiration for my story.

Basically, the story was this:

As a small-town newspaper reporter, you get to do some cool things. Since you cover a wide varieties of stories instead of being on just one beat, you work with a lot of different people, and get to develop relationships with them. As a result, they’ll sometimes invite you to join in unique experiences.

For example, there are some fascinating training exercises some agencies have. The police, for example, are quick to invite people to try one bit of training, in which new officers are sprayed with pepper spray, so they’ll know what it’s like.

Fire departments have another interesting bit of training, in which they conduct indoor controlled burns. They’ll outfit a concrete block room with furniture and fixtures, and then set a fire, so that firefighters have experience with what’s it’s like to be in a blaze before placing lives on the line in the real thing. And if you’ve got a good relationship with them, they might just invite you to join them.

So I donned a fire suit, which is much heavier than people realize, and joined two firefighters in the room, and the fire was set, using a great technique for committing arson. (I shared the technique at rehearsal, but shan’t here.)

After a while, I got a little nervous, surrounded by the flames, and, as I do when I get nervous, started fidgeting a little. When I did, I bumped into one of the other guys, Jeremy, who was a new volunteer firefighter from out in the county.

Because he was less experienced, Jeremy hadn’t paid attention to the fact that his pants leg was sticking out of his fire suit, and the flames caught the bottom of his pants. Because of the heat, he didn’t notice at first, and the pants started to burn up into his fire suit pants before he noticed.

Jeremy started to panic, and began trying to put out his pants, stumbling around as he did. He bumped into the other guy, Matt, who fell over backwards into the couch, which was completely on fire.

He got up, with his suit still … Well, if you’ve never seen something fireproof engulfed in flame, it’s hard to describe. The suit wouldn’t burn, but was surrounded by fire. If Moses had seen Matt, it would have seemed very familiar.

At this point, the chief saw what was going on, and realized he needed to do something. He grabbed the hose, and started working to extenguish the fire.

I had never put on a firesuit before, and apparently had done something wrong. I was wearing the airtight mask to protect me from smoke, but it wasn’t sealed off like it should have been, which I realized when water started getting caught in it. I was about to drown in a room that was on fire!

Thankfully, at that point, the ceiling collapsed. It put out most of the remaining flames as it did, and caught my mask and knocked it so that the water came out.

The problems were solved, and we were safe; everything was OK. Except for Jeremy, who had to have his foot amputated.

The story relied on a good bit of truth, but was completely made up. None of it happened, of course, and very little drew on personal experience. I did hear about firefighters (and police) inviting reporters to go through the training, but I never did. Firefighter turnout gear is very heavy, but I’ve never worn it.

But, apparently, those little details — and the arson secret, which got a reaction — combined with my credible delivery gave the story a fair amount of verisimilitude.

Enough so, in fact — and this was the unintentional compliment I mentioned –that one of my troupemates, who knows what we do, who has seen us do this monologue activity before, at the end of my story asked, “So did he really have to have his foot amputated?”