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UPDATED: Allan Gurganus, Sheri Reynolds, Tim Seibles in lineup of the 35th annual ODU litfest


John McManus and Tim Seibles, co-directors of this year’s Old Dominion University Literary Festival.

NORFOLK, Va. – The 35th Annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival kicks off today with a reception for two visual arts exhibits. Readings start Monday with author, poet and translator Yunte Huang, and the week goes full speed until Friday night, when Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, will write an entire novel while using only adjectives supplied by audience members.

That’s right, Hampton Roads — if you ever wanted to help a best-selling author modify his nouns and pronouns, this is your year.

So.

For legal reasons, I must now explain that Gurganus will not write a novel with your help, but he will be here in Norfolk. Probably to read something and talk about literature. His call, really.

Sorry that lede got away from me there, but LitFest! It is great. There are a host of talented artists who will read and talk and so forth.

The full schedule is at the bottom of the post, and please do click on this link to visit the festival site.

Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus and poet Tim Seibles are co-directing the festival this year. Both have been featured here at the blog, and, by way of full disclosure, they are my professors at ODU. Seibles, who recently published the collection Fast Animal, is reading on Friday, and one of my other profs, Sheri Reynolds, who has a new novel out called The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb, reads on Tuesday. Times and places are lower in the post.

I traded emails with Seibles and McManus about the festival this past week. Through the miraculous cut-paste function of modern personal computing, it seems as though I interviewed them together, but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this year’s festival?

Seibles: The main thing I want people to take away from this litfest is a clear sense that language is alive and that poetry, fiction, non-fiction, etc., do, IN FACT, have something to say to and about their lives.

McManus: I hope writers in the audience will go away eager to write in response to the festival guests or in argument with them, and I hope everyone will leave wanting to read these writers’ books and read more in general. That’s what happens to me during and after a good reading: I fill up with a sense of urgency at the sheer number of worthwhile books that I haven’t read yet, and a sense of urgency to sit down at my desk and write.

Q: Are there any specific artists you are looking forward to hearing or seeing?

McManus: I will admit to being particularly thrilled about M.T. Anderson, whose novel Feed I’ve read five times. He won the National Book Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, the first volume in a trilogy whose second book is partly set in Hampton Roads during the Revolutionary War. Two of my colleagues, Sheri Reynolds and Tim Seibles, are reading during the festival; it will be a delight to hear them both. I love both Dorianne Laux and Allan Gurganus. And I’m very excited about Alice Randall.

Seibles: I think all of the guests will be a good rush for the soul, but I am especially excited about Sean Thomas Dougherty, Jamal Mohamed, Robin Becker, and Yona Harvey.

Q: What was I too dumb to ask but should have asked? And will you please answer that question?

Seibles: The answer is ‘we swim in language – we drown or we stay alive in the language we think and speak.’

McManus: You’re a professional journalist and there’s nothing you’re too dumb to ask, but if you’d asked whom we’re bringing in 2013, I’d have answered that I intend to send invitations to famous recluses like Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Portis so that I can frame copies of my invitation letters to them and also because why not, and if you’d asked where I find all the smart, modish clothes I wear to the festival, I’d have answered that Dillard’s has an amazing 75-percent-off sale every year in the last weekend of September, which is why the festival happens at the beginning of October.

A schedule follows. Please double check the litfest site. Garage parking is free for on-campus events. Events are free, except for the staged reading of 8, as noted below. Most events are in Norfolk, though one talk is in Virginia Beach. A campus map is at this link.

  • Woman, Image and Art & Photographs With Teeth: Visual arts reception. 3 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 30 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some paid street parking nearby. (Further details on both exhibits below.)
  • Dustin Lance Black’s 8: Staged reading. 8 p.m., Oct., 3-5; 12:30 p.m., Oct. 3-4 @ Old Dominion University Theatre, 4600 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. General admission $20; students $15. Proceeds benefit ODU Out & The American Foundation for Equal Rights.
  • Author, poet and translator Yunte Huange. 2:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts, 481o Elkhorn Ave., Norfolk. Near W. 49th St.
  • Poet Yona Harvey. 4 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Robin Becker. 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 1 @ Batten Arts & Letters Building, 43rd Street & Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk.
  • Author Sheri Reynolds. 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Batten Arts & Letters.
  • Poet Patrick Rosal. 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ Learning Commons, 1st Floor, Perry Library, 4427 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk, Va. Near W. 45th St.
  • Screenwriter and playwright Dustin Lance Black. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2 @ North Cafeteria, Webb Center, 49th Street & Bluestone Avenue, Norfolk, Va.
  • Photographer Karolina Karlic, 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Gordon Art Galleries
  • Poet Sean Thomas Dougherty. 2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Dorianne Laux. 4 p.m., Wednesday, Oct.3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author M.T. Anderson. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Jan Freeman. 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Virginia Beach Higher Education Center, 1881 University Dr., Virginia Beach. Surface parking nearby.
  • Percussionist Jamal Mohamed. 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet and playwright Merle Feld. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Poet Tim Seibles. 2:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Alice Randall. 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.
  • Author Allan Gurganus. 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Hall.

And these longer-term events:

  • Woman, Image and Art: Visual Arts. Runs through Feb. 10 @ The Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, 4509 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. Between W. 45th & W. 46th streets. Some street parking nearby. FMI click this link.
  • Photographs With Teeth: Photography by Yunghi Kim, Cori Pepelnjak, Karolina Karlic & Greta Pratt. Runs through Oct. 14 @ Gordon Art Galleries. FMI click this link.

Please keep your adjectives to yourself – unless they are superlative.

Look, that was just a half-hearted grammar joke. Please do not shout out adjectives at Allan Gurganus.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XII: Beatty Barnes, Marlon Hargrave & Rob Wilson, executive producers of Keep the Change


Keep the Change executive producers Rob Wilson and Marlon Hargrave on Colley Avenue. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — Keep the Change, a new sketch comedy group in Hampton Roads, holds its debut show on Sunday, and I caught up with the group’s executive producers to talk about writing funny, writing the truth, and why their group aims to tackle sketch comedy from fresh perspectives.

Barnes and Wilson are both members of Plan B improv and sketch comedy. Wilson, of Chesapeake, recently was featured along with Plan B’s Jason Kypros in a discussion of comedy writing you can find at this link. Barnes, of Norfolk, is a veteran comic who I hope to speak with here again down the road. Hargrave, an actor, director and acting coach, lives in Portsmouth, which earns him extra points. Portsmouth living is what all the cool kids are doing. At least until the tolls kick in.

This conversation deals with the seeds of this group, including approaches to writing, collaboration, and seeking truths.

The Keep the Change show is at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 15 at Lola’s Caribbean Restaurant, 328 W. 20th St., Norfolk. There’s some free surface lot parking, and some limited nearby street parking. The restaurant is at W. 20th at Debree Avenue, within the Palace Shops & Station shopping center. Admission is $5, and the restaurant is running some drink and appetizer specials.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and there’s some adult language below.

Just a housekeeping note for those who are coming to this blog for the first time: I’m a writer, not a comic. I’ve been fixated a bit on comedy writing for the past year because I’ve been playing with joke structures within some new short fiction stories. The questions I ask writers and, in this case, writer/performers, reflect my interests, ignorance, and hang ups, such as they are, but my goal in doing these talks is to (a) talk to people I dig and (b) steal their hard-earned life forces to make my own writing better.

People seem to enjoy the conversations and get something out of it. That’s where this is coming from.

Q: So how many people are in the group?

Wilson: [Whistles.]

Barnes: Ah.

Hargrave: At last count it was about –

Wilson: Fourteen?

Hargrave: No, 15.

Wilson: You know, I think we’re back up to 15.

Hargrave: We might be up to seventeen. We were at 22 before.

Wilson: We shed a couple pounds. [Laughter.]

Q: Did they want more snacks?

Wilson: A lot more snacks, a lot less work. That’s the funny thing to me, when people join a thing and they –

Barnes: They don’t think about the work.

Wilson: They don’t think about the work. They’re like, “Yeah, man. I would love to be famous.” [Laughter.] “Work? Yeah … I’m good.” [Laughter.]

Q: Is this going to be your first performance?

Wilson: This will be our first full show. We did a sketch at my [comedy] show, “The Business” [in May]. Did like a little standup thing, and I think it went over really well. Just trying to get our sea legs.

Hargrave: What makes the group really unique is we have poets, we have comedians, and actors. It’s pretty dynamic.

Wilson: We’ve got some straight-up writers, as well. That’s more their background, but they’re getting up on their feet and performing. It’s really cool that all these people come from all these different backgrounds, and we kind of have all bled into each others’ fields.

Hargrave: We also have musicians, too.

Q: Is it basically an improv-sketch group or more variety?

Wilson: Pure sketch, but we’ve got so many other elements like the poets and musicians. That’s an integral part of the show. So you talk about writing, and you’re moving out of a strictly sketch format, which is great.

Hargrave: With that type of dynamic, we’re able to expand our comedy to real life experiences and having a poet or writer is a beautiful thing because they write all the time. As a matter of fact, our poets come up with skits.

Wilson: It’s about expression, in that not everybody gets reached the same way. Some peope love musicals. Some people love straight plays. Some people love action movies. Some people love whatever. You’re going to get a different sketch, a different idea, a different performance from someone’s who’s writing from a musical background, because they’re concerned about the rhythm. … It’s pretty neat seeing what everyone is coming up with. And our job is, a lot of times, facilitating all this talent we’ve got, and funneling it and packaging it into one really cool show.

Beatty Barnes. Courtesy photo.

Q: So both of you [Wilson and Barnes] , you’re still in Plan B, right?

Barnes: Yes.

Wilson: Yeah.

Q: So why did you want to do something different?

Barnes: I’m going to go with because Rob pulled me into it. [Laughter.]

Wilson: It’s not necessarily a black voice.

Barnes: There you go.

Wilson: But it is.

Barnes: It’s a voice, a different voice that hasn’t been seen around here in a really long time in sketch.

Q: Is everybody in the group black?

Barnes: No.

Wilson: We’re equal opportunity. … We were Pushers. Beatty was the alpha black dude in the Pushers. I was, I think, beta. [Laughter.] … Plan B’s really cool because I look at our roster now, and we’re about 50-50. That’s cool, but you talk about when Beatty was in the Pushers, it was just him, and then when [another actor] came along it was them, and then [the other actor] left. When I came in, Beatty left, and then for the longest time it was just me. It’s nice to be in a place where you’re not the only. “Okay, we need a black guy for this sketch.” In this place, we make sure we’re all pretty diverse and we’re experienced knowing that feeling. We write people. We don’t write black people or white people. Well, sometimes we need a cop. [Laughter.]

Q: Irish accent?

Wilson: Aye. [Laughter.]

Q: We’ve [Wilson and I] talked before about some of the groups and the idea of representation, and you’ve got a sketch where somebody’s black and that’s what the sketch is.

Wilson: Which is tiresome, at best.

Hargrave: And also I guess my problem with it is, and this is even on large-scale with TV, even when they do [feature a black character], it’s not written well enough. It’s not written truthfully enough. There’s always what somebody’s perception is. Usually the people who write it don’t have experience. They’ll grow up in the suburb and write about somebody in the hood, and it’s just from their perspective, and it becomes very … generic homeboy-ish, not really getting into who this person is. Very cliché. Just the human experience is what we’re trying to cover. More of a truthful story through comedy.

Wilson: One of the things we talked about was we wanted to tell the truth. Not just my truth. I kind of grew up in the suburbs. Even in Queens, it was more suburban than the Bronx. You know what I mean? We want to write everybody’s experience. My truth and Beatty’s truth and Marlon’s truth. There’s a lot of different shades. … We’re trying to make it clear that there is no one black experience. That shit used to piss me off because in theater, in a predominantly white school, college I mean, and you’d have people come up and say, “Well, what do black people think of this.” Well, I can tell you what I think. Damn it, me and him think two different things. So in trying to start this group, you understand you’re going to hear black voices, but it’s a choir, not a solo.

Q: Why did you want to do this instead of or in addition to what you were already doing? Was there any sense you weren’t getting what you needed from the groups you’re already in?

Wilson: It’s necessary. Wherever there’s a lack of something, and it’s blatant, it’s glaring, you can see there’s nobody doing it here, at least. It needed to be filled. It’s tough. Some of us have three, four, five other projects. This is a necessary thing that needs to be done. Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry can’t do it by themselves. …

Barnes: Tyler Perry is the Kenny G of black theater.

Q: He’s a regular reader of the blog, so this is really going to hurt him.

Hargrave: When Tyler Perry comes to town, there’s a group of people who will support him and we understand that. We’re far from that, and we would like to offer a different voice because our stories are so diverse and we don’t think of everything the same way.

Q: How do you avoid doing stereotypes when you do comedy?

Barnes: Don’t do it.

Hargrave: Because we’re real. … We do more of the human experiences, so we shy away from the conversations that have been done again and again through the years.

Q: Rob and I talked before about representation, which is a big thing I ask people about on the blog [because I’ve struggled with it in my writing]. … One of the things I’ve seen in some of the comedy, but people like Larry the Cable Guy, there’s a reinforcement of the subjugation of people who have been marginalized.

Wilson: My thing is the truth, man. That’s our mission statement: the truth. Even if you’re going into a stereotype, if it’s founded in truth, I mean, people get mad when you tell them the truth. … As long as it’s really true, then it will be funny. It’s an undeniable fact if it’s true. If it’s bullshit, people can sniff that out.

Hargrave: There’s this low hanging fruit if you go for the stereotype. We go for the fruit at the top of the tree, or at least we deal with the roots of it. Comedy is truth. Comedy and conflict is truth. We stay on that side of it. … I hate when you watch movies and the black guy is the sidekick. That never happens in real life. You’ve never seen a black guy be a sidekick to a white guy.

Q: I’ve had my personal ad out for a couple of years, and never got any responses.

Wilson: “Needed: black, funny sidekick.” [Laughter.]

Hargrave: We run into that all the time. It a voice that’s not there. For the most part … people don’t even realize that there’s another story until it is told.

Q: Can you give me an example where you were able to do that?

Wilson: There was one particular sketch that was written, it’s one of our favorites, I think, of church folks. It deals with an old-timey, you know … Sheeba McLeod wrote a sketch called “Church Folks,” and there was an appendage thing I wrote a long time ago, just all of those things in one sketch. The main thing is there’s a stereotypical preacher and we’re not poking fun at black church. A lot of people would have stopped there because when you think about black church, that’s a staple. You’ve got the preacher. He’s whooping and hollering. You’ve got folks falling out. You know, everybody knows the scene of black church. Tyler Perry has helped a lot with that. [Laughter.] No, but I mean even going as far back as Flip Wilson, these are your archetypal characters in this community. What she did, first and foremost, was kind of turn that on it’s ear. It became less about the archetype and more about the situation. This minister is lascivious, man. It bleeds through. … This is something that hasn’t really been addressed. Like infidelity. The scene is less about that character, that archetype you understand and you know and less about poking fun at him, and poking fun at the lady with the big hat. It’s more about poking fun at the abuse of power. In that way, you make it a real character piece as opposed to a stereotype piece. … A lot of our sketches – you’d think as a quote-unquote black sketch group. There’s a thing about suicide. There’s a scene about gay marriage and gay relationships with this thing about Obama not to long ago. We just seek out what’s funny, what’s true, and what’s poignant.

Hargrave: We spoke about how diverse the group is, and because of our different backgrounds we can look at the same situation different ways. I grew up in D.C., which is a little more hood – I don’t want to say I’m the hood-iest guy in here. [Laughter.] We end up writing from our truth. We write from ourselves, and I think that’s where the creativity and the story comes. Again, when Sheeba wrote this, we could easily have gone into that screaming preacher. … Instead of that, the undertone is infidelity and it is abuse of power and that’s what we want to address. When we have somebody who writes a skit like that, if it becomes too stereotypical or if it’s not good enough, then we get rid of it. One of my skits didn’t make it. It can’t even be reconsidered. It’s dead. It can’t be an ego about me or anybody else … If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you don’t fit the role, you can’t be in it. We’re challenging our writers to be more creative. Don’t come to us with the bullshit, because we won’t accept it. We started off, and people were trying to get the feel. But now we’re in a groove and people know what expectations are. They’re really writing some good material.

Q: What’s the process for writing? Does it come usually from the comedians or is it a mixture of everybody?

Hargrave: Everybody.

Wilson: The thing about this group, man, is we told them right off that everybody writes. Nobody gets to be a diva and not write. Everybody writes. You’ve got to do one of two things if you want to be in sketches. You’ve got to write yourself into them, right? Or you’ve got to show you’re so hilarious that you want these people to be in your sketch, you know what I mean? … So the sketches come in. We do table reads, and it’s a little bit of the Saturday Night Live format. When things come in to the table read, then you’re seeing who is laughing around the table, what jibes. We do an analysis of every sketch that comes in. We send it around the table. [There are suggestions.] Then it goes back into rewrites, nine times out of ten.

Q: Is it the person who wrote the sketch who does the rewrites?

Wilson: Mostly what happens, I give a lot of writing notes and we send it back with the changes we want to make. We talk about different things. We talk about what the general scene is. A lot of the time, people who really haven’t done this kind of writing before don’t understand the format, so it’s a thing of finding what the joke is. What’s the thing that’s funny? A lot of people will just write and write and write and it’s not that it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just that it doesn’t have any focus. We find the central point, the central joke, the central theme, and a lot of times the sketch will get turned on its ear. You know, there was one thing that they touched on that was really cool or really true, so we’ll take it all the way back to the drawing board and say, “All right, this part over here, I know that you’re going for some laughs, but you found some gold in this tiny little piece. Expound on this and leave all the rest of this out because it makes it muddy.”

Q: Beatty, you’ve been writing comedy for how long?

Barnes: Twenty-seven years.

Q: What do you look for in a joke?

Barnes: Having it not be a joke. Having not have a punchline, not have a tag. I like to teach, kind of, you know? Kind of do something that’s not regular, not normal. I don’t like the typical. I don’t look for the, “Oh, that’s funny right there.” You can get somebody else to say that. For me it’s more about the thing that is not normal, that’s not necessarily normal but comic. It’s easy to laugh at seeing someone fall, but [what about] the shoe that the person had on?

Wilson: We had a relationship scene. It was funny enough. It was a Lucille Ball misunderstanding kind of thing, and Beatty was like, “No. What if he was a woman.” And just that one change changed the whole thing. What it did was it didn’t make it a stereotypical scene that a man would have with a woman about a misunderstanding, just by plugging the woman into the place where the man was. … He found just in turning the head a little bit. It was funny.

Hargrave: We were right in the middle of it, too. We pulled him out right there, pulled the guy out and plugged the girl in. And boom.

Wilson: It was gold.

Hargrave: And Beatty has an older joke I love talking about. You remember when you’re talking about when you’rte driving and playing white music?

Barnes: Right.

Hargrave: And then the hood guys come across and say, “Why are you playing that white music?” And you say, “Oh, I just stole this car.” Right? It’s funny. You would never expect that. Me being from the hood, I worked at Bennigan’s, and I was the token black guy in Bennigan’s. One of the funnier moments that I has working there was when I went to the jukebox, I wouldn’t play the black songs. I would play the stuff they would never expect. I’m not lying, but the only other black person there, we’d both be nodding our heads, and he knew that I did it, but nobody else in the restaurant knew that I did it. I mean, nobody would have expected that was my lineup. I had Aerosmith. I had Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. I could have played Jodeci, easily, and they would have known it was my lineup. And the deal was that the other black person, who was a rapper, nodding his head lets me know that our story is deeper than that.

Q: Do you think really – I mean, I wrote on Thursday, and I listened to Funkadelic all day long. Actually, the same three or four songs over and over again. [Laughter.] Do we still live in a society where … is that really still a thing?

Hargrave: You have the artists that get played on the radio. You’ll have Justin Bieber – Bieber, is that his name? – you’ll have him next to Lil Wayne now.

Wilson: On the same track.

Hargrave: Yeah. Now because of multimedia, because of the internet, we’re at a point in society where we see more cultural diversity. Justin was found by Ludacris.

Q: That’s the worst thing Ludacris has ever done. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: It’s a gold mine for him, that’s for sure.

Barnes: Justin’s all right, man. … I listen to what my kids listen to, and, “Okay, I can see why you would like that.”

Q: I listen to what my kids listen to, but I won’t defend the Wiggles. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: Then we have The Disney Channel, and there are a couple of kids who are artists and my daughter looks up to them all.

Wilson: There’s some regular folks who only stay in their lane, who only listen to the thing that they’re supposed to, who only watch the thing that they’re supposed to. They’ve decided to stay there. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. So I think that part of what we do is necessary in showing folks that there’s a different way.

Hargrave: I was born in the 1970s. My father tells me stories about growing up here in Virginia Beach that are unfathomable. He actually got arrested for sitting in a lunch – he got arrested for that. I can’t fathom that. We grew up post Civil Rights movement, so we don’t know anything about that. I don’t know anything about what my dad went through. My journey has been so different, so now my child’s journey, even though she remembers Bush a little bit, she’ll remember Obama on, for sure. It’s weird. My parents tried to explain the movement to us the way I’m trying to explain pre-Obama to her.

Q: Do you think the sketches you’re doing you could do with Plan B or The Pushers or another group? What is it that makes them unique?

Barnes: That’s a very good question.

Hargrave: I think that … you have to have experience in what you’re writing, and because we write from ourselves and our personal experience, the people who are in those groups didn’t experience it the way that we experienced it. The outlook, the joke of it, it just comes from a different area. And to be honest, predominantly white groups may not be able to touch something that we can touch. Just like the church sketch, I don’t know that another group can pull it off the way we do.

Barnes: It wouldn’t have been the same –

Hargrave: Impact. Would they reach the point we’re trying to reach? They might do that archetypal preacher, and it might be funny, but they wouldn’t touch what we’re touching in the same environment.

Q: What do you think of that, Beatty?

Barnes: [The sketches] stand by themselves, but to picture someone else doing them.

Q: Do you feel like you’re taking material you weren’t comfortable pitching to other groups?

Barnes: It probably would never come up. It would never come up. It would be, well, because you’re thinking – I don’t know if it’s commercial thought or you’re just staying away from what you really feel in sketches. Or maybe it’s because of the cast. You know, you just don’t have enough people for it … That might be the biggest thing.

Q: Because you don’t have enough black faces to make it come alive? Or am I misunderstanding?

Barnes: No. I think of our group [Plan B]. … We have five black folks.

Wilson: I don’t know if that was a move on their part …

Barnes: It was on us.

Wilson: I think Plan B can do it now because –

Barnes: That is a really tough question.

Wilson: I know when I was with The Pushers, we did a show up in New York. … I wrote a series of sketches called “Black Man’s Fantasies.” And a couple of them, when we were working them, they went over pretty well. It was easy. It was stereotypical. Like, calling a cab and it coming right to you. That was one of them, and they loved that one.

Barnes: I’ve never had a problem getting a cab in New York.

Hargrave: I would grab white girls off the street and say, “Please hail me a cab.” They would go right by me and pick up somebody else.

Wilson: That went over, but I wrote another one in the series and it was all about gentrification.

Barnes: Wow.

Wilson: Right? And immediately, [a] girl was like, “I don’t get it.” And she lived in New York. I was like, “What do you mean you don’t get it? Where you live right now … that’s gentrified.”

Q: It used to be called Harlem … Har-lem. [Laughter.]

Wilson: Maybe I could have written the sketch better, but there wasn’t [anyone] willing to help.

Beatty: Because of the cast it would be hard to do. Not enough black faces. I’m still thinking about that question.

Wilson: I could never write a black family. … I just wanted to be able to have the personnel to write the things I wanted to write. If there was a family, I could never be in the sketch. I wrote a sketch called “The Other Son.” The family was like, “We want you to know you’re black. You’re not like us.” I was like, “Yeah, we’ve all got mirrors. I figured it out.” [Laughter.]

Playing us out? Enjoy The Wiggles.

Remember, kids – make sure to use a plastic knife, and you may want to have a grownup around.

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UPDATED: Announcing the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest


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April 3

I’m now taking entries for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Deadline is June 15.

Additionally, I’m pleased to say Fair Grounds Coffee on the upstairs of 806 Baldwin Ave., on the corner of Baldwin and Colley avenues in Norfolk, will display winners and runners up in July.

Details on the national tour to come when people start returning my calls anywhere.

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The Imaginary Board of Trustees is pleased to announce that the second annual Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest submission and reading period begins next month.

I’m taking submissions from April 2 until June 15, with winners to be announced here at the blog on Monday, July 2. As with last year’s contest, I’ll pick the finalists and judges-to-be-named-later will vote “blind” for their favorites.

I hope get more visual art entries this year, but getting any entries at all brings its own special joy. The winners and runners up will be displayed at a Norfolk-area business. I’m still working out the details there, but hope to have more information soon.

Should nobody enter, we will pretend this did not happen. Just like my junior prom at Cranston High School East. Go Bolts.

Don’t want to enter? Suit yourself, cupcake. But before you go, do consider this persuasive and entirely solicited testimonial from last year’s winner, the Marylander di tutti Marylander who is called Gary Potterfield by all who are introduced to him as such. Get ready for gravitas:

A warning to anyone contemplating entry into the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing contest. Run. Just put down the chop sticks and run. For if you should win your life will never be the same.

Ever since I won last year’s contest, hardly a day goes by that I’m reminded of my victory. In fact, entire seasons go by and I’m not reminded of it. Immediately after the announcement, I began to receive more than 100 emails per day, none of which had anything to do with fortune cookies or cookies of any kind.

I can count at least 2,372 people who have not asked for my autograph, and that’s a low estimate. 

I think my victory has even affected the time-space continuum. The February immediately following the contest explicably had 29 days. 

Clearly, we need to bring the title back to the Virginia. May God bless the Commonwealth that is not Kentucky, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Yes, as the kids say, the preceding sentence was a parochialist U.S. state designation burn.

Click here to see the full official rules, such as they are. (Please bookmark this link for updates.)

Click here to see last year’s winners, and the runners up, too.

Here are the basic guidelines, from the official rules:

In this test of skill and conciseness, readers contribute (hopefully) clever or artistic fortune or fortunes of their own creation to me via email to jhdouc@verizon.net – not in the comments, please.

Funny fortunes. Clever fortunes. Poetic fortunes. Artistic fortunes. Silly fortunes. Sad fortunes. Angry fortunes. Your hopes and dreams, your fears and foibles. Whatever way you want to approach it. It just has to fit on or to the form of a fortune slip, so please keep it to about 30 words or less. Cartoons, (original) comic strips, photos, and artwork all are encouraged, not just the written word – it just has to fit into a fortune cookie fortune sized space, such as this:

There will be modest prizes of my choosing, including signed books by authors previously featured on this blog. Last year’s prizes included Ted Danson and Mike D’Orso‘s Oceana and Earl Swift‘s The Big Roads. There also may be prizes from local businesses in the Hampton Roads area. Or maybe not. Details to come when the reading period nears.

Please enter early and often, and maybe tell your friends.

This message is pretend approved for immediate release by the Imaginary Board of Trustees.

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Theater: Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect on the local debut of Any One of Us


Karen Levy Newnam of RipplAffect. Courtesy photo by Andi Grant Photography.

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk marketing and communications executive Karen Levy Newnam has theater and non-profit roots, and these worlds meet in her involvement in RipplAffect.

Now in its fifth year, RipplAffect has produced a series of benefit performances of Eve Ensler’s plays, primarily The Vagina Monologues, to raise awareness and money for the YWCA of South Hampton Roads, among others, and support survivors of domestic violence and rape. RipplAffect has raised about $20,000 for the YWCA to date.

Three performances this month mark the local premiere of Any One of Us: Words from Prison, a collection of monologues conceived by Ensler and developed from writings by women serving in prison. LaToya Morris directs. Newnam, a founding member and principal of RipplAffect, produces and acts in the play.

We spoke by phone about a week ago for the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length. As happens around here, I’m writing about a friend — and someone I admire for her heart, drive and commitment to the Hampton Roads community. Additional full disclosure: my wife, Cortney Morse Doucette, is a founding member of RipplAffect.

The performances are scheduled for 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m., Sunday; March 16-18; at The Perry Family Theatre, 485 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk. Make reservations and get information by calling (757) 339-0578. Credit card ticket sales also may be made by clicking this link. Tickets are $15.

Donations to the YWCA of South Hampton Roads also are welcome. The performance is part of V-Day 2012, a response to violence against women.

I hope you’ll come away from this Q&A with a sense of how the arts can be used to support local charities, and I hope you’ll check out one of the upcoming performances. Additionally, Newnam speaks about some of the practical aspects of production — and about how conversations and ideas can become something that pays dividends.

There is one word below — hopefully, only one word — that may make you a bit uncomfortable. So you know.

Q: Let’s talk a little about RipplAffect. This is the fifth year, right? How did this start?

I was at a networking lunch with a group of women I met through Leadership Hampton Roads [now LEAD Hampton Roads]. We kept in touch and got together once a month. I was talking with Dorothy Dembowski, who is a friend of mine, just about plays that we enjoy and theater we hadn’t seen in a while, and just started saying, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be interesting to produce a play, and, if we did produce a play, why would we do it?’ And she had a lot of interest in women’s issues, as well. I did The Vagina Monologues years ago, a really great way to bring light to some of the issues facing women everywhere, but to particularly bring focus to issues in Hampton Roads.

I started talking to some of my friends in the theater. We said, ‘Okay, if we’re going to do this, why are we doing this?” We started talking about the issues that were important to us and the power of theater and the arts to really make those issues accessible. We weren’t interested in starting a non-profit to raise money that other people were raising or to start a non-profit to offer services that other people were doing a great job of. But we could certainly produce theater in an effort to bring more attention to what they were doing and help them raise money for the good work that already was happening.

Q: The first year you decided on The Vagina Monologues. Had you figured out you would be working with the YWCA before you decided on the play, or did the play come first?

The play had come first. I was at a fundraising luncheon for the United Way, and I ran into the executive director of the Y. I had been on their board in my early twenties. I said, ‘Some friends of mine and I would like to produce The Vagina Monologues, and we want to be able to partner with an organization that supports survivors of domestic violence and rape, and we thought of you and I wonder if you’d be interested.’ She said, ‘My goodness, we have an intern – her name is Denise Hughes – and she’s been wanting to produce The Vagina Monologues for the same reason. Why don’t I connect the two of you?’ So that’s really how it started. I connected with Denise. She’s amazing. She was a big part of the organization until she went into the Peace Corps. …  It just really came together.

Q: The first performance was at the YWCA, wasn’t it?

The first four were at the Y, actually.

Q: Some of the readers who aren’t from here won’t know the layout of the YWCA in Norfolk, but they’ve got this – what’s a wonderful meeting room, but not necessarily a wonderful theater space. But you guys kind of transformed it.

Exactly. We talked about getting theaters, and the folks at the Y said, ‘You know, it would mean a lot for us if we could bring new audiences into our building.’ So they have a very, very large multipurpose and meeting room …

We got in touch with fabric companies that support theaters, and we ended up ordering from a company out west. We ordered yards and yards and yards of black fabric and had it cut. I remember people with sewing machines and hemming and ironing, and we masked the entire space in black. Before that it was, ‘How do we turn this into a theater?’ That was one thing – let’s take the definition of the space away by masking the walls from floor to ceiling in black. Then we used some platforms to make some stage space, and actually that first year Natasha [Bunnell] directed, and she really had this vision of making the space even more vaginal. I think in between the black curtains we had flashes of red fabric. It was really something else. So when you bring the chairs in, you put a platform in, and you bring in the lights, and everything is black, it became a cozy theater.

Q: You have folks who are at, maybe, different levels of experience. I always found that the productions that you guys have done, that’s been really meaningful and informed the performances. Can you talk about the different kinds of people who have been involved in your performances over the years?

The first years, we really pulled a bunch of friends together, and said, ‘Hey, come do this with us.’ It was a phenomenal experience. We had some very talented actors. It was probably the second year that we had gotten a new director from outside of the group, and she brought in a bunch of women we didn’t know. So the group started getting bigger. The third year we actually advertised auditions. Little by little, new people entered the group. I think what speaks most to what it means to people was the fact that this year, besides myself and Cortney, the three young women – I say young women and I date myself – who are really instrumental in making this happen joined us along the way. [In addition to Morris, the director, they are Anna Sosa and Eileen Quintin.]

To some people it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to do The Vagina Monologues.” Or ‘Oh, I need to do a play; let me audition.’ And then other people come into the fold, and it really touches them. Our director, LaToya Morris, has two jobs, and she’s doing this. She actually chose the play we’re doing, as well. This year we decided we needed a break from The Vagina Monologues.

Some people will do the show and be great at what they do and walk away. That’s fine, too. Other people, it’s the whole idea that through their acting they can elicit this thought process in people. They can open their minds to something that’s going on that they might not have thought about before and then hopefully give back in some way. It really has affected key members who keep coming back here year after year.

Q: You’ve had lawyers, students … Is it a challenge to bring people who don’t have theater experience into the story?

The year we did that the most, we were looking at it from a marketing perspective. How can we increase the audience? A lot of people, when they do productions as part of V-Day, will get members of the community to be involved. I reached out to folks, whether they were philanthropists or lawyers or radio personalities. That year, we pulled in a radio personality and a lawyer, and neither of them had acting experience. It definitely helped increase the audience, but it was an amazing process seeing someone who you consider a lovely person but is fairly reserved take one of the, I think, hardest monologues to do and get up on stage and, in character, talk about her vagina.

It’s pretty amazing. Challenging. You have a group of people and the director says, ‘You need to be off book by the 10th.’ Half the people are saying, ‘What does off book mean?’ When we have someone like that, we usually buddy up with them.

Q: The Vagina Monologues really does speak to people year after year. Could you please talk about why you think this material is something that is worth being performed and worth bringing people together in support of a community organization?

It amazes me, but at this point so many people haven’t heard it. It’s an interesting mix of humor, innocence, and just really, really in your face, dirty, ugly reality. I think for every moment of, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe they just said that’ or just horror at somebody’s plight in one of the monologues, the play also does a good job of bringing you around to the lighter side and just letting you enjoy a laugh, and then it wraps up with ‘I Was There in the Room,’ the monologue about birth, really celebrating women.

That’s one of the nice things with the new play, too. The final monologue in Any One of Us really wraps things up in a nice way. I think that’s why it’s successful.

We did The Vagina Monologues for a new group this summer, and I actually got into some intense conversations with one of the members of the board who was horrified and asked me to do some editing of the monologues and asked me to cut some of the monologues. It just got to the point where I had to say, ‘If you don’t think this is the right play for your organization, then you need to find someone else to do this for you.’ It’s not our mission to do easy theater. It’s our mission to make a difference, and this is how we make that difference. She had wanted me to cut [the monolgue] ‘Cunt’ and there were some other monologues she wasn’t comfortable with. We ended up doing the play, as is. At the end, she was just really touched. I think some of it probably offended her sensibilities, but I think she understood it. The audience, which was a different audience for us, was probably the best audience we’ve ever had.

Q: Any One of Us is kind of similar to The Vagina Monologues and some of the other theater work that Ensler has done. … This developed from workshops. [The project came out of a 10-year-old writing group involving Ensler and 15 women at a prison, according to V-Day.] Why did this play speak to your director and speak to the group as a whole?

We initially started doing this through V-Day, frankly, because it is easy. [If an application to do the play as a fundraising event is accepted by V-Day, there is no cost for rights.] They provide you all the materials for marketing. For people with full-time jobs, it makes it a manageable process. So when we decided to look at something else – that we wanted to do a different show –  the first thing we did was we went and looked at other pieces Eve had done and that were part of V-Day. And, also, we looked at other scripts. …

At the end, it really was the director who called our attention to this piece. I think the main reason was it was really eye opening. Once again, Leadership Hampton Roads – I guess it was a good thing for me – we did a tour of the Norfolk Jail, and we went through all the different floors. What really got to me was the women’s side of the jail. It wasn’t frightening being two inches from the bars where there were men. It wasn’t frightening being in the open areas where there were men. It was all fairly calm. But when you got to the women’s side, there was so much anger and so much aggression – and it wasn’t just bars separating, it was walls and windows, but it was palpable and it was, I thought, a very frightening experience. So when LaToya found this piece, it was the realization that, when you start looking at it, the numbers are staggering  –  women behind bars who are survivors of domestic violence or rape. Not making excuses for anybody’s actions, but we started realizing the correlation between the plight of these women and the causes we had been trying to bring light to.

Q: Is it a similar experience to The Vagina Monologues?

There are funny moments in the monologues, but I think the ride is a lot rougher. But, again, the final monologue is saying this could be any one of us. It’s not an easy ride. Not to say The Vagina Monologues is an easy ride, but this is entirely different.

Q: Why do you think this is a valuable experience for people to come and see? Why do you think this piece will speak to folks around here?

Hopefully, for me, it makes people want to help, want to support organizations like the YWCA that keep women from winding up in these places. I hope it at least makes them think twice instead of judging. When you think about neglect or you think about abuse, I don’t know that people often think about this side of it. I think making that connection is important.

Q: This production is going to benefit the YWCA again, but you’re not doing it at the Y. Why did you have the change of venue this year?

I just couldn’t see us getting on a ladder again and hanging curtains and sheets and begging for lighting again – not begging. The theater community is really warm. But every year we go out an say, ‘Can we please borrow your lights? Can we please borrow your platforms?’ Buying fabric when we don’t have it. And the idea of really being able to get in a space that already was put together and instead focus on the show itself was really attractive, and it’s been a much better experience.

Q: So the space has been pretty open about having you there?

Yes. We’re at the Perry Family Theater, [home of] the Hurrah Players. And I’ve known [Hurrah Players co-founder] Hugh Copeland since my time at Old Dominion University. Basically, I told him, ‘We ultimately will be looking to have a relationship with a theater where year by year we’re producing in their space. You’re probably not the space for that … ’ Not that Hugh doesn’t support it and believe in it, but they do family theater. It’s a very different audience. So they very graciously – I mean, they have let us rent the space for what worked in our budget. We don’t make any money. It all goes back to the Y. They’ve been great.

Q: Do you see a longterm relationship with this space, or are you looking for another space?

I think as long as they don’t get any backlash – which you never know – I think it’s a great space for us. It’s just a perfect space. We could produce there again. We’ll keep looking. There are other theaters we really need to be talking to and working with, and maybe their mission is a little more in line with us. I respect what Hugh is doing, and part of me does worry, ‘Is he going to get backlash for this?’ I hope not.

Q: Where do you see RipplAffect down the road?

I wish I could tell you. No one wants to let it go, but no one has the time to take it as far as we want to. In the perfect world I would have the money and create a non-profit and hire some of these fabulous women to run it for me. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I think this year we’ll be getting our 501(c)3, and we’ll make it official. And then I’d like to see us have a relationship with a theater so that, once again, every year it’s not running out to find a theater, find this, find that. I’d like to see it get a little more stable that way. In a perfect world we’d be running programs on college campuses. I mean, I think the mission is important, and it really speaks to the strength of the arts and to theater and the opportunity to really have an affect on people and the community.

Poster designed by Maya Elena Sosa.

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Tunnel Traffic is back; New Jersey is ‘nice’


The Tunnel Traffic reading series shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a Johnny Cash reference in which "shot" means "gathered writers to read a poem or whatnot" and "just to watch him die" stands for "just so people listening have this realization, basically, a kind of epiphany about the world." See? This cutline is totally not libelous, right Travis A. Everett, founder of the series? Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — The Tunnel Traffic reading series returned last month, and it will continue this week at Borjo Coffeehouse near Old Dominion University.

The reading prompt, recently announced by series founder Travis Everett, a poet and and ODU student in the MFA Creative Writing Program, is say something “nice” about New Jersey. As regular readers of the blog know, I’m also a student in the program.

The next Tunnel Traffic is at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, at Borjo, located at Monarch Way and W. 45th St. in Norfolk. There is nearby metered street parking and some garage parking. Plenty of drinks and eats.

Here’s a video from the last one, and a brief Q&A follows.

Here’s the Q&A with Everett:

Q: The topic/prompt is “say something ‘nice’ about New Jersey”? Why is “nice”  in quotes?

We’re just following an old typographic “convention” for providing additional emphasis, John.

Q: New Jersey, as in the state, yes?

The Wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘New Jersey’ informs me that there’s a Bon Jovi album, and two battleships by the same name. Our fault, for introducing the ambiguity. If you have something ‘nice’ to say about Bon Jovi’s New Jersey or either iteration of the USS New Jersey, please do.

Q: We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Anything to add?

I have a lot of “nice” things to say about glam metal.

And that’s the whole interview. As a wise man, his guitarist, and Desmond Child once wrote:

You get a little but it’s never enough.

Show up Wednesday. Maybe Tico Torres will show up to sign autographs, though I am legally obligated to tell you he will not. Anyway, if you want to rock the mike by reading the lyrics to “Bad Medicine,” don’t do it all ironic. Rock the mike with sincerity, baby.

Playing us out is, well, you know:

P.S. Everett was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A last year, available at this link.

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John McManus’ “Mr. Gas” is on AltDaily, which is more awesome than John McManus is letting on


NORFOLK, Va. — Geez, I step away from my computer for a few days and miss something cool. That’ll learn me. It’s you and me from now on, computer.

You see, Norfolk writer John McManus, featured here in a very funny Belligerent Q&A and a Craft Talk earlier in the year, published his fine story “Mr Gas” this past Friday at AltDaily in place of his normal edition of If Your Read the Paper, which I have praised on the pages of the Interweb.

Additionally, it just happens that “Mr. Gas” is the very story I choose to ask him about when we did our craft talk, because I love it, though McManus opens the AltDaily post with a humble “editor’s note” he actually wrote himself:

Because John is en route to South Africa today, he can’t write If You Read the Paper. He left yesterday and lands in Cape Town tonight, where he’ll spend ten days visiting a friend and researching a novel. During his layover in Amsterdam he sent us one of his old short stories instead, as we urged him to consider doing. It’s called “Mr. Gas,” from his 2003 collection Born on a Train. He wrote “Mr. Gas” when he was twenty-two and knew virtually nothing, so he prefers that you not read beyond the end of this editorial note, which he also wrote. He doesn’t usually talk about himself in the third person. He is probably jetlagged and confused.

This is called underselling, you see. There’s a lot in it for writers and readers to discover. Please visit AltDaily and enjoy.

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Writing Craft, Vol. VIII: Rob Wilson and Jason Kypros of Plan B (Part Two)


Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of Plan B sketch comedy and improv.

NORFOLK, Va. — I recently sat down with Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of the Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group Plan B to talk about writing, handling sensitive topics with humor, and the group’s forays into videos. Here’s the second part of that talk. The first part is at this link.

This conversation was recorded at Kerouac Cafe before Plan B’s recent The Big Show at the Naro Expanded Cinema, and it has been edited for length and clarity. There is some adult language below.

Q: How much standup do you do?

Wilson: I do a little bit. Jason, he got me started. Yeah, he started me down that path years ago.

Kypros: What I ultimately would like to see for Plan B is, well it is already – a cool creative entity, a thing that is itself. It’s not me. It’s not Rob. It’s not Brendan. It’s not anyone. It’s everyone. … I’d like to see it where somebody could actually come to us and say, “We need a creative concept.” Because that’s what we do.

Wilson: We’ve done stuff for a lot of different people around the area, like “Plan B Cares.” We’ve got the YWCA we’ve done work for. … On top of that, when Jason says we’re a creative team, we can go anywhere and if you need two hours of entertainment, we can give it to you.

Kypros: Like last night I did standup, Rob did standup, Beatty (Barnes) did standup and then we did an improv show afterwards.

Wilson: There’s so much talent in this group and we’re trying to – I’m not going to say exploit – but we’re trying to bring all that to –

Kypros: We want to utilize it all.

Q: Let me go to “Light Rail” now. Obviously, I think it’s a great sketch. I think it is very funny, especially here.

Kypros: It is a little local.

Q: But it’s not like a local gag and then you show the “Plan B” (video credits). It’s a full thing. So this starts with you guys in the car –

Kypros: Wherever we were, we’re talking about the light rail and this was the time we were just starting the group and we knew – I was really pushing the video. … We were brainstorming, we had this idea, and looked at each other and said, “Let’s just write this one.” So we went back to the apartment, and Rob and I pretty much sat there and wrote the script.

Wilson: What was really funny is we needed a platform for these guys to really talk about this (in a) conversation. So we wrote the conversation first, the dialogue.

Kypros: Well, we had the jokes. We were laughing – you know, “It’s $100,000, you could go to the moon this number times.” So we had the jokes so that’s how we structured it. We knew where we wanted our beats to be. We knew where the open was, and we had our character point of view.

Wilson: That’s exactly it. It went jokes, and then we had the jokes essentially and we went to the characters. Okay, this is the point of view and how we can get to it, and then we came back to the jokes and really formed them to the characters. The part when the high math came in, like, we said that almost simultaneously.

Kypros: We had an idea – One of the things you think about for sketch, too, but definitely for video, you’re thinking, “What’s my stage picture? What’s it going to look like?” And we both were kind of brainstorming and we thought it would just be funny for Rob to be totally like in some crazy, like doing some high math. When we talked to Keith Jackson – and that’s when we got the location. My dad let us get into St. Patrick’s (school) and they had this white board. I said, ‘Keith … I need math on the board. I don’t care what it is. I need math.’ So he showed up with like the equation for hydrogen. So that’s what that is. But this is how that stuff happens. So you’re constantly writing the whole time, and you show up on set – We have our script, we have our beats and our characters, and we get on set and now we have Keith getting in it, too. Keith’s like, “We should go all the way around the board.” We start thinking A Beautiful Mind. So we get these crazy dolly shots that go all the way around the board. And then we had an idea it would be funny if Rob wrote something completely ridiculous on the board, so at the top, what is it? Like, “Ham over eggs times two equals omelet.”

Q: I’ve tried it. That hasn’t worked out for me.

Kypros: (Laughs.) It’s an inexact science.

Wilson: I was working it out.

Q: Let me take you back to the writing. So you’ve got your jokes. You work the dialogue. You know who the characters are going to be. So one of the things I like is a lot of the comedy comes from the acting. It’s your (Kypros) earnestness and it’s the way (Wilson) deflates everything that (Kypros) says with – and I love light rail – but with common sense.

Wilson: That’s the thing.

Q: But do you know that structurally, that that’s what you’re going to do?

Wilson: The thing was. Were knew Jason’s character is the voice of the city. He’s the city’s boy.

Kypros: The city personified. I’m the people making just blind decisions.

Wilson: Yeah. Like, “It’s gotta work out.”

Kypros: We were opposite ends of the spectrum. Republican-Democrat. We’re talking about the same thing but we have different points of view.

Wilson: In my mind, I felt like everyone that I knew. You know what I mean? All of the people I had talked to about light rail, these were the things that they were saying but their voice hadn’t been heard. They were saying it but they weren’t saying it at City Council meetings. They were saying it in bars. They were saying it, you know, wherever. So of course nobody was going to hear it because they were talking to other people in bars.

Kypros: That was the idea. And the choice for Rob to play that character and me to play the other character –

Wilson: We went back and forth.

Kypros: We didn’t really know who was going to play who at first.

Wilson: The “house citizen” line.

Q: That’s a badass line.

Kypros: It’s a good line, right? It’s got some layers.

Q: It’s a really loaded line.

Wilson: Once we had kind of figured out who was going to play what, that line came about then, because it would have been weird to go the other way, I think.

Q: How did you think about that line?

Kypros: We had some jokes, but the jokes do develop as you write the script. You don’t want to have too many jokes and you want it to seem dialogue-y and not jokey. … The house citizen line. We had jokes, and other jokes came out. One of the hardest things about writing a good sketch is the end.

Wilson: Yeah.

Kypros: Getting out of a sketch is so hard sometimes.

Wilson: All the time.

Kypros: Not all the time. Sometimes you get a gift and you know what your out is and you’re like, “This is great.” You know? But finding the out is just really difficult sometimes. That was toward the end and we added it. We knew what the voices of the characters were. We thought it would be cool to be able to say something that had that connotation, but apply it to a different – It’s still a mentality, you know what I’m saying? You can apply the mentality to anything you want.

Q: I worry that people who live outside the area don’t get how good it is. You lay out the logic – how isolated it is, how you stop at 7-Eleven – then you get to the capper, which I think is the Beach, where (Wilson) goes, whatever the line is –

Wilson: “Sure it is, Jason.”

Q: What is it, two minutes long? And you get all the logic against light rail – not that I agree.

Kypros: Well, yeah. I think when we were writing it we knew that we had something that was good. When we were done I felt this is a good sketch.

Q: Have you ever done that one live?

Kypros: No.

Q: A lot of it’s in the acting and the camera.

Kypros: It is. That was Keith. The whole bit at the end, you know, that’s Keith like, “I’m just going to let it run. You guys do what you do.” That’s him saying … let it happen. No, we haven’t done it live. Some of the timing happens in the post production, too.

Wilson: You find out how much of an editor’s medium it really is.

Kypros: You look at the footage for “Light Rail” and you see different takes on lines, different deliveries and intentions.

Wilson: It changes the whole thing. You could have cut really any of the sketches we’ve done a hundred different ways and it changes the meaning. We try it a number of different ways, really.

Kypros: To a degree. You can’t cut them too divergently. Every part of the sketch matters though. That’s a successful sketch to me because, you talk about timing, every part of it to me works together. Like the feet shot, me walking through. That was a last-minute thing.

Wilson: It built momentum for the scene.

Kypros: They’re not all home runs, but that one definitely had a better chance than others.

Q: How much of the finished video is in the script and how much is improv?

Wilson: Well the whole end is improv.

Kypros: The tag is all an improvisation. … Really the ending and the beginning is all improvised. With him working the problem and me coming in …

Q: Sniffing the marker?

Kypros: That was improvised.

Wilson: (Laughs.) I don’t know where that came from.

Kypros: I think Keith caught on to it.

Wilson: “Keep it.”

Kypros: ‘”You’ve got to sniff that marker, man. Sniff it.”

Q: Tell me about “Forest Fires.”

Kypros: We had the “Racism” PSA because we did it as a live performance for the YWCA. The feedback that we got was everybody really liked it. And again, part of the charge for doing more video work. I wanted to shoot stuff. Shoot stuff, shoot stuff, shoot stuff. And so I had a golden opportunity to have some hands on deck that particular day that I normally wouldn’t have. Chip Johnson and Keith Jackson and the racism PSA didn’t involve me, so I didn’t really have to worry about performing in it. We could really make more of a production out of it. So Brendan Hoyle, like all the early stuff with the exception of the (restaurant) interview … that’s all Brendan. He’s really good at turning a script out quick. That forest fires one was a PSA he had written, as well. So we decided it would be cool to try to shoot both. Since we shot the ‘Racism’ PSA, part of the production process was we shot it to look like a real PSA. So we thought it would be funny to sell this other PSA idea as if we just broke from a PSA. So that whole intro to that, the ‘Forest Fires,’ that was all improvised. We made that up on the spot.

Q: That racism one would have been very interesting with shirts off.

Kypros: (Laughs.) It would have been great. And the only reason we called it “Forest Fires” was we were trying to think of ways for it to get hits. We were just playing around. Forest fires were happening at the time.

Q: That one, other than the intro, was that scripted?

Kypros: That one was scripted. But like the donut was an afterthought.

Wilson: I wanted that donut.

Kypros: I ate it.

Wilson: We had like, what, four donuts?

Kypros: Just two. But the donut was a thought. We’ll go into a production and one of the things I like to do is think of the ways to make it more funny visually.You know, we do this and cut to this and I have a donut.

Q: There’s a lot of reversal of expectations in that one, too, which makes it funny. So you just work out the beats in the writing or is it in the rehearsal?

Kypros: Well Brendan had written it – He had written that sketch before Plan B. It was sitting around. So I had a chance to look at it, and just as an actor … You talk about the “Light Rail” and the acting and, well, we have done it for a while and we work well together. I knew – again, I had my point of view. I knew what was happening there. Brendan was going to try to derail, hijack the PSA, and I just wanted to keep it on track. “No, no. We’re not here to talk about childhood obesity.” And then some of the direction comes out of that.

Wilson: You figure it out. What’s really cool is attacking it from all these different angles, as an actor, as a writer. I guess Jason more than most and also Brendan, who is a great theater director, your mind starts working on like three or four planes when you first get a script. My thing is really live shows. I can grasp how a live show is going to work. … It almost happens organically. We’ve been doing it together six months now, and we’re starting to really know each other. … Now it’s one of those things to where when you get there you’ve got a feeling of how it’s going to go down. There are happy things that come out of the process –

Kypros: To interject, it goes back to that intent of the group having an improv base, so you know, here’s the script, you’re off book, I’m off book, here’s who is going to work the camera. Everybody’s got their role. But when you get down to doing it, you can allow that improv to happen.

Wilson: A big improv concept is that of one mind.

Kypros: We want to be like a cool-ass, jamming jazz band.

Wilson: You get the sheet music, you know the song, but you know, like, Lauren might riff off and do some cool stuff.

Kypros: And people have some characters that they can do. When you’re writing a sketch you can write to someone’s strengths. ‘I can just see this guy saying it.’

Q: Can we talk about the silent film? There are a lot of different kind of gags in there. Can you talk about how you came up with the idea?

Kypros: My dad’s been playing (piano) for the silent films forever. Before I was around. Thom Vourlas (of the one and only Naro Expanded Cinema) had mentioned to me years ago, “You know what you should do, you should do a silent film.” … As a part of a way to try and get the group out, and I’ve just reached this point in my life where I want to create, so we mentioned the idea to Thom, would it be a cool idea and he said sure. So we were like, “The Naro, we’ll be able to put a video up.” It was a great way to get some exposure.

Wilson: It was really cool being on the big screen.

Kypros: The concept basically was I thought about whether I wanted to make it look like a silent film, you know, do after effects so it would look all jerky. I tried to film it to see if I could make it look like that and I couldn’t find any easy answers. So my decision was to shoot it like a silent film. What I mean was to use all wide shots and then just dive in for coverage. I wasn’t worried about over the shoulders, medium (shots) …

Q: A lot of the coverage is for gags, like the locket.

Kypros: Exactly.

Q: You see the acting and then you cut to see the joke.

Kypros: Right. That was one of the jokes – Brendan and I opened it up to everybody. We always do. … But that was one of the jokes Brendan and I had from the beginning. We were laughing hard that is would be so funny to reveal this locket and we were both in it. … Because of that, because we couldn’t use dialogue, we knew it was really character-dependant. It was really dependent upon sight gags.

Wilson: The Phineus T. Snellsworth character (the heavy played by Wilson) actually came out – we didn’t know what to do with him.

Kypros: Rob came up with this idea. It was after we put the ‘Light Rail’ video up, and it was getting a lot of play. So we were talking about it and Rob came up with this character.

Wilson: It was going to be this guy and it was the same character but he went into City Council and went, “Yes, I’ve got this fantastic idea. I’m just going to need a hundred thousand million more dollars.” (Evil laugh.) And then the City Council’s just going for it. (Laughs.)

Kypros: And we used that character for a cold open we did at a Belmont show. That was his debut. Then we did this project, we decided to use that character as the lead, pretty much. The villain.

Wilson: We’re always finding new stuff.

Kypros: We had that long title card and there’s no way to read it. We knew we wanted that gag in there. … And we shot that in a day. We started at the Naro, and we thought we were going to this other location and there was going to be a whole chase scene around the house, and we were like, “No, can’t do it.” So we shot it at the Naro. … I wanted it to be like a silent film, but a 2011 silent film. Like it didn’t have to be something that Buster Keaton would (be in). It had to be like that. … We knew we wanted to be clever with (the form of the video) and break convention.

Q: And mess with light rail again.

Kypros: Yeah.

Q: Well, let’s talk about the ending. There are a lot of little gags, like the ropes just being piled on her.

Kypros: That happened there. We didn’t have time to get that shot. And in the editing room that happened. We’re just sitting there watching it like, “Aw, shit. We just pulled the roped off her.” And then we said, “Let’s let it roll.”

Q: And then you go into 7-Eleven.

Kypros: We had established that. (Laughs.)

Q: That was in the plan.

Kypros: That was in the plan. That was part of one of the shots. We knew we needed to get to a railroad track. We knew we needed a rope.

Q: So was that a light rail track?

Wilson: No.

Kypros: That was a piece of track that wasn’t even part of the track. We just lucked into this not-on-the-track track.

Wilson: Location scouting, man. That’s so important.

Q: I wasn’t at the show, but the whole part where you’re waiting for light rail, did that get a big laugh?

Kypros: Oh, yeah. “Where is that light rail” got a big, big laugh.

Wilson: It was just crazy.

Q: For that one, it’s almost like you don’t need the card. Because the joke is in the acting and then you get the card.

Kypros: Yeah, you get the acting and then you get the card and the card just punches it. That was in the timing too. We knew we had to time the joke but also we had an opportunity to get a laugh from the placement of the card. … Really, the title cards came after. Like “Where is that light rail” might have been one of them we knew was going to be in there.

Wilson: I think the whole thing we do that is exciting to me is the layering. It starts with the original person to the group, and you get some additional layering there. And then you get on set, and … there’s the improv that happens there, and then you get into the editing room.

Kypros: In post we can add sounds and play with the timing even more.

Wilson: They say too many chefs spoil the stew, but if you have just the right amount of chefs, you know what I mean? It’s just one of those things.

Kypros: We’re a creative collective. That’s what we’re trying to be. We’re trying to be an improv jam band.

And that’s that. Thanks, guys.

Speaking of jamming …

If you’ve stuck around this long, you deserve a treat. Here’s the amazing Dennis Chambers, playing us out. This song near and dear to my heart because my older daughter, now five, used to dance around to it when she was a toddler. Aptly named, too — “Plan B.”

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Writing Craft, Vol. VIII: Rob Wilson and Jason Kypros of Plan B (Part One)


Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of Plan B sketch comedy and improv.

NORFOLK, Va. — I recently sat down with Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson of the Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group Plan B to talk about writing, handling sensitive topics with humor, and the group’s forays into videos — most recently a 10-minute homage to silent film.

Kypros, 33, is a Norfolk native and Wilson, 29, was raised in Chesapeake and Norfolk after his family moved here from Queens, N.Y. Both are writers and actors with Plan B, and both also perform standup comedy.

This conversation was recorded at Kerouac Cafe before Plan B’s recent The Big Show at the Naro Expanded Cinema. It has been edited for length and clarity. There is some adult language below.

Q: Had you wanted to perform when you were kids? How did that develop?

Kypros: I can remember being really little and I just liked to dance all the time. Whenever anything came on, I would just dance. Which is funny because when I was older, you’re an adolescent and you know, I would never dance, but inside I was like, ‘Fuck, I want to dance.’ (Laughs.) But I did a play in first grade, because my dad was teaching where I went to school. Ever since I did that play, I always was kind of doing that stuff.

Q: And at some point, comedy hit you.

Kypros: Yeah. I always loved comedy. … I went to Thoroughgood Inn (Comedy Club in Virginia Beach) before it shut down. I remember going to see a show and being like, ‘I can totally do that.’ But I just didn’t have the nerve to do it. So I moved to L.A. because I got a role in a film. … After a year and a half in L.A., I finally did stand up. I was probably around 23.

Q: What was the film?

Kypros: Mickey. … It was a John Grisham film. I was eligible for my SAG card after the film, and I met a producer and I started working for him. I moved to L.A. and found out intern meant work for free. … I started doing comedy and then started taking courses at The Groundlings.

Q: How about you, Rob?

Wilson: My first play, I can’t remember the name of the play, but I was probably in the first grade. I remember that I played an exclamation point. (Laughter.)

Kypros: I bet you were so good at that.

Wilson: I was. (Laughter.) Like, the play’s almost over and I come busting in. And I say, I’m like, ‘Bam!’ And then after I say my line the (Bel Biv Devoe) song ‘Poison’ comes on. And we all did the dance. (Singing.) ‘It’s driving me out of my mind.’ We all did that dance and I remember I was always do plays in church, and if there was time to speak, I would be doing it. It probably wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 years old, there was this girl, —– ——, and she was like, ‘I love poetry and plays.’ And I was like, ‘Shit, I do too.’ (Laughs.)

Kypros: —– ——, if you’re out there …

Wilson: Thank you. … I eventually started hating her guts. (Laughter.) But like the acting and the poems, that kept up. I decided in high school, that’s what I was going to do. I thought that was all that I was good at, and I’d been doing it since I was 14.

Q: You applied to Old Dominion University?

Wilson: Yeah. I went to (Tidewater Community College) for a minute, and I did some plays over there. I got into ODU. It was like being new all over again. I realized how much I sucked. (Laughs.) When you’re in high school you think you’re great. Then you get to college and you think you suck, and then you get kind of better at it. And then you think you’re great again, and you get back out into the real world, and you think you suck again. It’s kind of this perpetual thing of thinking you suck. I didn’t start doing comedy until I auditioned for The Pushers. And that was six, seven years ago. … (Following a pilot show for The Pushers) I did the very first real show. I was doing a play at the time, Hole In the Sky.

Q: The 9/11 play.

Wilson: Yeah. And – too soon, first. It was like 2003, maybe 2003, 2004. It felt too soon. … I was doing that, so I couldn’t do (The Pushers). So Brad (McMurran of The Pushers) and another dude came to the play and I was giving a heart-wrenching speech to the audience, and they found a way to sit right directly in my eye line, and Brad’s making faces. People were like crying in the audience, and I’ve got to try not to break character. That’s when I decided comedy might be fun to do.

Q: Did you go to school locally?

Kypros: I went to Norfolk Academy for 12 years. My dad taught there at the time, and then I went to college at Virginia Tech. It was pretty much right after college that I got that movie. That’s when I went out to Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles for about six years.

Q: What did you study at Tech?

Kypros: I was an interdisciplinary studies major.

Q: What does that mean?

Kypros: It’s almost like a choose your own adventure major. You take your minors and you turn them into an interdisciplinary studies major. My minors were theater, communications and the humanities. I didn’t get accepted for the engineering curriculum but I took engineering for the first year and half … and I was like I don’t want to do this anymore. … The theater minor happened because I was doing so much production. I was in a lot of plays, and you kept getting like a credit every time you did a play. I was like, ‘Shoot, I might as well take a couple classes and get the minor, you know?’

Q: What kind of plays? Was it comedy?

Kypros: No. Actually, I love musical theater. We did some cool stuff, man. We did some experimental stuff based upon a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Comedy always ended up coming up. You’ve got to know when to hit those beats. When you’re performing live, it becomes something you can feel. It’s not always the same thing. You know it from seeing things that make you laugh. It’s like, if that would have been a second sooner, I wouldn’t have laughed that hard. Timing is –

Wilson: Is everything.

Kypros: Is everything. Timing and life are both a bitch. (Laughter.) Timing is a bitch.

Q: So how did you do with standup?

Kypros: The first time I got up, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do the edgiest stuff I have.’ I got up there, and it was some pretty decent stuff. I have joke about my mom being adopted. Some of the jokes I still tell today.

Q: What’s the joke about your mom being adopted?

Kypros: It’s just like people , when they get on stage, they want to say, ‘Well, I can say this because my mom was this or I can say that because my mom was that.’ You know, but my mom was adopted so I don’t know what she brings to the table. You know, the only way I’m going to find out is if I run for office or something. So I’ve had to look at my life and see if there’s any clues to show me what it is that she brings to the table. I realized that ever since I was 13 I’ve always had a job, so maybe I’m white. But at every job I’ve ever had they’ve always complimented me on my fantastic work ethic so I could be Mexican. I get my check and I don’t want to spend it so I might be Jewish. And I love white women so I must be black. And that was the joke. … The first time I got up and told these jokes, people laughed and this guy asked me if I wanted to do this show at this place that was down on West Pico Boulevard, the Comedy Union next to the Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n Waffles in L.A. It was like a bringer show. (The comic has to bring friends to fill the audience, and there’s often a drink minimum.) But it was cool. It was one of those moments where you got up, you did it, it was great, and then the guys says, ‘Hey, I run the show. You want to do this thing?’ You know, so that was neat. That worked out pretty good.

Q: How hard is it to fill the bringer shows? Did you have willing victims?

Kypros: Yeah. You have some friends. It’s always something like bring five friends or eight friends. But the thing was always, it’s a $10 cover and a two drink minimum. So it was hard to constantly hit your friends up, and they hear you telling the same jokes a lot. … After a while, you realize I can’t keep doing bringer shows. As a hungry comic, you want to do all the work you can do, but then you get to be a little wiser in your craft and you start to see what it is. You start to see the benefit of the open mics and then you say, ‘Well, maybe I only need to do one bringer show every three months and really bring ‘em out.’ … You almost inadvertently get a schooling in self promotion.

Q: You’re writing your own stuff.

Kypros: Yeah. Absolutely. My brothers and I have a great relationship and so every now and then they’ll call me up and have a funny idea, you know what I mean? There’s some jokes that I have that are certainly thanks to my brothers and there are jokes in there that are thanks to my friends too. You know, as comics you’ll sit around and go, ‘Oh, here’s a tag. In that joke what if you said this?’

Wilson: We were just having a conversation last night on the way to the show and somebody said pee-pee.

Kypros: I said pee-pee.

Wilson: And I said please don’t – there’s nothing sexy about referring to my penis as pee-pee, and we just spit-balled for like, what, twenty minutes on the way to this show. When we got to show, it killed.

Kypros: Yeah, I got up and started doing this bit and it worked. That’s how you write, I think. That’s how I write. The way I write the best. Riding in my car, thinking about something. You know, riding in my car by myself, it’s almost like I’m working. My head’s running, I’m thinking about stuff, and I’m putting stuff together. There’s nothing better than having a buddy there you can bounce stuff off of.

Wilson: Yeah. That’s a good thing. That’s actually the best stuff ever.

Kypros: Road tripping is good times.

Q: When did you start writing?

Wilson: I started in poetry and spoken word. … I started writing probably my senior year of high school for real. My buddy and I thought we were filmmakers and (laughs) we would do just horrible stop-motion effects and stuff like that … I was 22 before I wrote anything good. Everything was terrible up until that point – writing this hugely emotional, what we thought was avant-garde crap for years. But when I started writing comedy, started writing sketches all the time, that gets you to train that muscle to start thinking in that way.

Q: And for comedy to work, it’s got to have a shape.

Wilson: Right.

Q: You got to have the assumption, you’ve got to deflate the assumption and build toward the final turn. I know I’m not using the terminology.

Kypros: I don’t know what the terminology is.

Wilson: My favorite thing is incongruity. I learned this back in high school. One of these things doesn’t belong here. One of these things doesn’t work. You know what I mean? And then under that same kind of notion, what if something is completely out of place and no one acknowledges it?

Kypros: You put normal people in a strange situation or –

Wilson: Or you put strange people in a normal situation.

Kypros: You play with levels and all sorts of stuff.

Wilson: Truth’s the best thing, though – stuff that really tells the truth. That’s what I liked about the “Light Rail.” I didn’t even thing it was so funny. It was funny because it was so true.

Kypros: To me, that’s the whole reason I wanted to do comedy anyway. I grew up listening to Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and George Carlin, but George Carlin was the one I really liked the most, I think, because I thought he was hilarious and he dealt with issues. He dealt with the way people thought about things. Everybody’s dealing with the way people think about things because it’s comedy, it’s the juxtaposition, but I just thought it was so cool. It was like, ‘Many a truth is told in jest.’ How many times has someone been, ‘Hey, you’re an asshole. Ha ha. Just kidding, man.’ Man, you mean it. (Laughter.) I like to say that standup comedy is the last bastion of free speech, or it should be. Which is why I tell that joke about my mom, because to me it’s ridiculous. We’re sitting here laughing and it’s like so what, I get to say this thing or that thing or this word or that word or I can say this scenario just because I have this card to say it? You know, if you’re going to say it, say it. The thing about it too is it’s what makes you laugh. You’ve got to hit that thing. Again, with the light rail, they’re thinking that. They’re already thinking it. And you’re saying it.

Wilson: We gave them a voice.

Q: How did this group start?

Kypros: I had done The Groundlings and I was back in Norfolk and I had always wanted to do – I felt like when I came back I wanted to do some sketch comedy. … I got to meet Rob and Brad (McMurran) and all those guys (through The Pushers), and Sean (Devereux) and everybody … Well, we kind of were buddies before I saw (Wilson) perform. I thought it was really awesome what they were doing everything and we all became friends and were hanging out and all that kind of stuff. … I had always kind of wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what it was. I ended up going back to L.A. after I came back (to Norfolk) to finish the class at The Groundlings, finish this last whatever. Now I’m a level four Groundling. It’s like a role-playing game or something. That was the one where they really taught me how to write. That was the one where the whole idea was look at all this improv training you’ve done – use it to write the sketch. Use it to fill in the blanks in the sketch. Which is really like we were doing already, where we’re riding in the car, BS-ing in the car, and suddenly I’m up on stage telling a joke, only it’s written, you know?

Wilson: Right.

Q: But if you want to go long form, and I think it’s the same as a story, there’s a shape. It’s got to go somewhere. We’ll (discuss) that with “Light Rail,” but how do you get to that place? The inspiration seems to be the improv, but at some point if you want it to be –

Wilson: With that sketch specifically, there was an idea. We were thinking, ‘Well, what’s on people’s minds?’ I think that’s where it started. And then we were –

Kypros: We were bullshitting about the light rail, is what it was. We were just talking about how stupid it was, and we started laughing, and … we just kind of looked at each other.

Wilson: Aha. That’s it.

Kypros: We had just started the group. I had come back and I’d done a couple plays at Little Theatre of Norfolk and Brendan Hoyle was the director there. He and I together were like, ‘Let’s start this thing. What do you want to call it?’ (Hoyle and Kypros then started Plan B.) Rob and I had talked about doing stuff together and it was the sort of thing where we were all talking about stuff but there was never the opportunity for us all to work together.

Q: So why did you leave The Pushers?

Wilson: I wanted to be a part of this group because Jason and I work together and we have a really great time. We have great chemistry. It’s fun. It’s like a little bromance. (Laughs.) And he’s like well we’re doing this thing, and we’re going to be shooting a lot of stuff, and it was always something I was really interested in. I thought a lot of subject matter was going to be different from what I was doing then. So I was like I want to do this thing, and (The Pushers) thought it would be a conflict of interest. (Though Wilson wanted to do both, he realized there was no way he could have split his time.)

Kypros: When we started Plan B, we had like eleven or twelve people. We had an audition. Thirty people came out. We didn’t expect that many and we had to choose 12 of them, and now … we’re down to nine. That’s how it goes. Cause it’s hard, man. No one’s making money.

Wilson: We’re doing it for the love.

Kypros: We knew that everybody had different levels of experience as far as what they’d done with improv. One of the things we talked about from the very beginning … we wanted improv to be the foundation of the whole group. The sketches would come out of that. It’s fun. You’re constantly creating. We’ve done a good job with it and we’ve tried to help each other along. Our rehearsals are like a class.

Wilson: Almost, yeah. Definitely.

Kypros: We have an agenda. Rob’s been making sure we stay on task with that.

Wilson: We all are on different levels. Jason’s gone all the way through The Groundlings. Lauren’s completely Second City trained. I’ve been doing it a while. I haven’t –

Kypros: You’ve had influences from all these different things.

Wilson: I’m like a ronin. I’ve learned a little bit from here, a little bit from there. All of us will tell you, every single rehearsal we go to, we learn something new.

Q: (Wilson and I) have talked personally about content. In my own writing this is something I’ve struggled with (in short fiction stories). One of the things we’ve had conversations about, is when you’re creating art or a sketch – and I think what you guys do is art – how do you deal with that issue of how you’re representing people in sketches?

Wilson: We did a racism sketch. Sometimes I think it’s what’s not said but how the characters themselves are portrayed. So in the racism sketch, I’m a black dude who has his own hang-ups and ideas and Brendan’s a white dude who has his own hang-ups and ideas. Both of the characters are coming from an intelligent place with an intelligent argument, even if their foundations are completely off base. What I’m saying is we’re not playing any one character in a way that –

Kypros: We characterize a specific point of view and the point of view points out the ridiculousness of the situation.

Wilson: Right, but I’m saying in the portrayal of the characters. Not just in the content. I think a lot of it has to do with the portrayal of the character.

Q: Both characters – and they say completely off-base things – but they both have power.

Wilson: Right.

Kypros: They believe what they’re saying.

Q: It’s a dialogue, it’s not –

Wilson: Right. It’s not, ‘You’re telling me how it is.’ And I’m just sitting here taking it or vice versa. It was honorable.

Kypros: It was an honorable dialogue.

Q: Until you got to Asians, but we’ll come back to that.

Wilson: Right.

Kypros: Right, but come on.

Wilson: (Kidding.) We don’t have any in the group, so they couldn’t speak up.

Kypros: Nah – Again, the point was to add to the ridiculousness of stereotypes and that sort of stuff.

Wilson: Right.

Kypros: That was the idea. Like for all those things, you’re talking about content and what we want to get across, I know for me – I have a production company. That’s how we started doing all these video things. I have a small production company, JLK Productions — there it is. That’s all the plug I’ll do. … But so basically, here I am, I know how to do this sketch stuff. The cool thing to me about the sketch stuff was, you know, this is what I was writing. I was coming out of The Groundlings writing all these sketches for stage and thinking, ‘Some of these would be good video sketches.’ To me, SNL and the stage and that whole concept – I really got a taste of that when I was doing that class. I mean, three months of that. So this was what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do Plan B and I knew we were going to have video influence from the beginning. … Keith Jackson started helping us out. He helped direct “Light Rail.” He and I directed it together, and he directed the racism PSA. … With the racism PSA, as far as content is concerned, we knew that – I knew that I wanted to keep it at a certain level. As a standup, I hate it when you go to work a room and they say, ‘You’ve got to keep it PG.’ I don’t know why. I feel we all live rated-R lives, and it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise. You might stub your toe and say ‘shit.’ That’s the world we live in. So I’d rather be honest, but I don’t want to push it. But with the racism PSA, there definitely were some moments where we all as a group were like, ‘Well, how should we play that line?’

Wilson: I feel that when you’re talking about, especially, racial stuff or anything that’s kind of touchy, I go back to truth, man. Like, if it’s true, let’s play it from an honest place. That’s coming from an actor and a writer’s place, but, I guess, more as an actor because you want to play the honesty. We were cautious of certain things because you don’t want people to get the wrong idea. Because when you do something that’s touchy, when you do something that can go either way, there becomes a concern. (Comedian Dave) Chapelle was talking about it. He was talking about when he was doing his show … he did (a sketch about a family whose last name was a racial epithet) … He did the sketch and it was hilarious to him, but he would go to some backwater place and people would come up to him and be like, ‘Ha ha ha, (repeating the epithet) yeah!’ And it was like, ‘Why are you laughing?’

Q: That’s kind of what I’m getting at. Could someone watch that sketch (“The Folly of Racism”) and enjoy the fetishization of Asian women at the end of it?

Wilson: I think the point that it’s placed, it’s tongue-in-cheek enough – If they did, it’s a far reach.

Q: Right, but you think the sketch reads that, obviously, it’s satirizing both stereotypes and sometimes the ways we talk about stereotypes.

Kypros: Right. What Rob’s saying about truth and what we said about putting ridiculous people in real situations or vice versa is what you have there is you have two people who are characterized, and they themselves are playing stereotypes and they believe it’s their truth and it looks like a PSA. That’s how you get the funny in that sketch. It’s like (singing the NBC public service announcement theme) ‘The more you know … ’ So we have this real situation and we’re putting ridiculous people in it. So that’s why I don’t have a problem with the Asian joke because we’ve established that these two people are ridiculous. You know what I mean? So they say that joke and it’s like some place for them to – so the subtle way is it’s like bringing them together. You know what I mean?

Wilson: It’s like this common ground. And the thing I’ve realized is somebody dumb is gonna take whatever you say and feel whatever way they want to about it. But you know what you’re intention is. As long as you’re clear on your intention as an artist or as a group of artists –

Kypros: There you go.

Wilson: – then, I mean, you give it to them and it’s all subjective.

Kypros: You can’t make everyone happy, right? … Not everybody’s going to laugh at a comedy show the same way.

Wilson: The thing that gets weird is when you’re dealing with a group of artists and you don’t know the group’s intentions. You know what yours is. If you don’t know the group’s intentions, that’s where you get into a muddy place.

Kypros: We make sure, I make sure, Brendan makes sure that once we had everybody after the auditions we told everybody what our intention was.

Q: What is your intention?

Kypros: Our intention is just to be a really good sketch comedy group. Plain and simple.

Wilson: From top to bottom.

Kypros: We want to have solid stuff and we want to be able to appeal to a wide range of people. We’re not trying to go for one particular group. With my standup, it’s different. I go to do my standup and I want to say whatever I’m going to say and I want to do it however I want to do it. But with this stuff, I am more inclined to go, ‘Well, will the kids laugh at it?’ Like the silent film. (‘Follow That Fiend!’)

Wilson: We did the silent film at the Naro, and children were enjoying that. You know, it’s nice. Oh God, it’s so nice to be able to have something you can have your mother and children enjoy. You know I don’t have any kids yet – that I know of – but when I do I want them to be able to enjoy the things that I do. With my standup, my standup my kids are not going to enjoy. Until they’re 20. (Laughs.)

Kypros: You might not want them to hear it.

The next part of this talk is on the way.

Playing us out … a terrible song about an L.A. institution to which Kypros gave a shout out above. Enjoy the insincere dancing.

P.S. Plan B did not do this video.

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Billy Collins, Joy Williams in lineup of the 34th annual ODU litfest


NORFOLK, Va. – Recently I spoke with the author, short story writer and educator John McManus about writing and somewhat less serious topics. He is co-directing the annual literary festival at Old Dominion University with Michael Pearson.

It starts this week.

I neglected to include the link at the time of our talk, and wanted to follow up with a note about the 34th annual Old Dominion University Literary Festival.

McManus recently wrote about the event in his AltDaily column, and told this to The Virginian-Pilot:

We are trying to promote writing and literature. We are trying to get the community out to readings. …

We tried to pick writers who give excellent readings. …

I always love to hear what a writer sounds like, what a writer’s voice lends to my understanding of their writing.

This year’s theme is “The Lie That Tells the Truth,” and those on the bill include Billy Collins and Joy Williams. The festival is underway today, though most of the events come fast and furious starting tomorrow.

Most events are in Norfolk, though one talk is in Virginia Beach.

A schedule follows. Please double check the litfest site. Garage parking is free for on-campus events. Events are free unless noted otherwise.

  • Playwright and director Young Jean Lee. 2 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Recital Hall, Diehn Fine and Performing Arts, 481o Elkhorn Ave., Norfolk, Va. Near W. 49th St.
  • Author Porochista Khakpour. 4 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • The Words and Music of Paul Bowles: Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno with Andrey Kasparov & the Norfolk Chamber Consort. 7:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 3 @ Chandler Recital Hall. Student admission $10; general admission $15.
  • Photographer Yola Monakhov. 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Poet and writer Renee Olander. 3 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 4 @ University Village Bookstore, 4417 Monarch Way, Norfolk, Va. At W. 45th St. Garage and metered street parking nearby.
  • Poet and writer Mark Halliday. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 4 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Author Elizabeth Searle. 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5 @ Virginia Beach Higher Education Center, Lecture Hall/Room 244A, 1881 University Dr., Virginia Beach, Va. Surface parking nearby. Reception and book signing to follow.
  • Poet and essayist David Swerdlow. 2 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Nonfiction writer Claire Dederer. 3:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5 @ University Village Bookstore.
  • Poet and prose writer Naomi Shihab Nye. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 5 @ the George M. and Linda H. Kaufman Theatre, Chrysler Museum, 245 W. Olney Rd., Norfolk. Surface lot parking & some unmetered street parking nearby.
  • Novelist Jeffrey Lent. 12:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 6 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Novelist Scott Heim. 3 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 6 @ University Village Bookstore.
  • Poet Billy Collins: President’s Lecture Series. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 6 @ Webb University Center. Off W. 49th St.
  • Poets Indigo Moor & Adrian Matejka. 2 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Journalist and author Megan Stack. 3:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
  • Author Joy Williams. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7 @ Chandler Recital Hall.
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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIII: Plan B sketch comedy and improv


NORFOLK, Va. — Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent a good bit of time speaking about writing and creating comedy with people who are a lot funnier than me. I have found this process to be both invigorating and humbling — like sex, but with a greater percentage of intentional laughs.

Today a few members of Plan B, a Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group, will be represented here in a Belligerent Q&A. I’m not going to lie to you — there is some adult language below, so be warned. Also, whatever they say, I still dig light rail.

Plan B this weekend presents The Big Show, an improv, sketch and multimedia comedy performance. The event is scheduled for 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1, at Naro Expanded Cinema, 1507 Colley Ave., Norfolk.

You can find information at this Facebook link or call (757) 625-6276. Tickets are $10, or $15 for tickets and a shirt. There is surface lot parking behind the Naro between Spotswood and Shirley avenues and some nearby street parking.

Two Plan B members, Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson, also sat down with me recently for a long craft talk, which will run at a later date I totally will figure out like really soon and stuff. It’s quite the well oiled machine around here, let me tell you.

In addition to an upcoming show, the members of Plan B have names, such as Beatty Barnes, Brendan Hoyle, Nikki Hudgins, Garney Johnson, Kypros, Lauren Rodgers, Keven Schreiber, Jim Seward and Wilson.

I hope you’ll check them out.

And remember to take care of your feet. Also, the lower legs and ankles. What do I mean with the random foot care references? I’m setting up what the funny folk call a “call back.” Do you have to ruin everything, Imaginary Mom?

The following answers, unless otherwise noted, came from Kypros.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. The White Buffalo
  2. The fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse
  3. Big Debbie (Little Debbie’s sister – the one that taught her all the recipes)

Q: What was Plan A? (Please don’t all of you say podiatry.)

Sorry to disappoint … Podiatry.

Q: Presumably, you let Hampton Roads Transit take a pass on the scripts for your light rail videos. What were some of their notes?

Rob here.

Of course we talked to HRT and they had some very insightful and funny notes on that script. In fact they actually wrote all of Jason’s dialogue. That’s why in that sketch my character sounds like a sensible human being and Jason’s sounds like a behind-schedule, over-budget murder machine that will never be allowed in Virginia Beach as long as white people with money have anything to say about it.

Q: For the future comedy writers in the readership, will you please enumerate a few of the catch phrases and setups to avoid?

Jim Seward here.

What are you kidding? Never avoid catchphrases and common setups! Look, the average audience member doesn’t understand intelligent humor. And they don’t know George Carlin from Carrot Top. Be as uncreative as possible so you can relate to as many people as possible. Never try to have an original thought; it’s doomed to fail. People love dick jokes. You can never go wrong with dick jokes. If you’re writing for a black comedian, make sure you talk about how uptight white people are; that always works. If you’re writing for a white comedian, mention how they have good credit, and then make a Hispanic slur and say ‘It doesn’t matter, they can’t hear me, they’re in the kitchen.’ If you’re writing for any other nationality/ethnicity, just have a story about how it was tough for their family to adjust to the United States and then have them talk in a funny accent as they mimic their parents. Gold, I tell you – sure fire gold!  Oh, and puppets. Always have them use puppets. Preferably puppets who can play a musical instrument. Then you can go for minutes and minutes without writing any comedy!

Q: Plan B – there can only be one. How and when will you fight the so-called Plan B Improv of Des Moines, Iowa?

This is Keven.

When? End of the corn harvest season. (Just to be courteous.) How? To the pain. I have a sweet black bandanna I can wear. And a broadsword. And I can speak with either a Scottish or English accent.

Q: Can we do a double bill? I will gladly fight character actor John Doucette, once considered the fastest draw in Hollywood. We’ll see if his reputation holds up, given his 1994 death.

No, we cannot. Although you are a wonderful journalist, I fear that even the cold dead hand of the late great John Doucette may prove to be too swift. (Actually we would love to do the double bill but Legal prevents us from it … we have a non compete clause with the NRA.)

Q: Why aren’t more comedies set at NASA?

Jim Seward here again.

Great question. There should be more comedies set at NASA. You could have the nerdy engineer, the sexy tour guide, the ne’er do well ex-astronaut who hits on all the ladies, the server in the cafeteria who’sa smartass to all the customers. Yep. And then there could be special guests who rotate in and out like the Love Boat – you know, each episode is a different shuttle crew or something. Then when ratings start getting lower, there could be a ‘very special episode’ where the shuttle crew is beloved by everyone and then at the end of the episode they launch and it blows up, and we pan across the faces of all our regular stars as we see the look of shock and horror on each of their faces. Except the smartass waitress. She just exclaims, ‘Eh, they weren’t very good tippers anyway.’ Remember, no tragedy is so bad that you can’t milk it for commercial purposes.

Q: So there’s Plan B and The Pushers and apparently some groups coming out of the classes over at The Muse Writers Center and then other day a guy at the bus station asked me for a topic and gave me two minutes on “directions to the can.” At what point does Hampton Roads reach its improv and sketch comedy saturation point? Should we make a rule – such as saturation is when we have a greater number of improv troupes than we do miles of light rail track?

I know that guy. He kills at The Funny Bone.

Q: When you say this show at the Naro is The Big Show, what are you getting at? How do you think it makes all the other shows feel?

  1. The size of the show.
  2. Skinny and cute.

Q: You comedy style is marked by a give and take between characters in conflict, sometimes portraying a battle between the earnest and the savvy, interlocking sides suddenly joined by circumstance in the congress of verbal and physical structures, mated in a deliriously dirty dance until reversals pile against reversals, recasting perspectives, erupting in a moment of truth, a single comedic beacon illuminating the dim bay of human understanding. What does that mean, what I just typed?

This is Keven.

It means we regularly rock faces off. It also means we should probably take a shower after doing dirty mating dances. Especially me. For obvious reasons.

Q: You are known, in part, for the marketing campaign behind Kypros Ouzo. I often enjoy ouzo in the privacy of a darkened bathroom, drinking it neat until the voices leave me alone with my shame. Do you have any other serving suggestions?

Yes.  Once, on the summit of Everest, after an arduous yet liberating climb.  I enjoyed a refreshing glass of Kypros Ouzo with Vladimir Putin, his mistress, and three of my favorite Sherpas. As we toasted to the success of the Internet, I thought back to my childhood in Cyprus. The look on my face made Vladimir weep.

Q: A bit more seriously – why do this? Why create something when there are so many other ways to spend one’s time? Where do you see the group going down the line?

Be passionate about something.  Always strive to create.  Give and expect nothing in return.

We are going to 7-Eleven to get a Big Bite and a Slurpee. Wanna join us?

Q: I hope you enjoyed that softball because here we go. Hoyle, you’re a maverick astronaut with daddy issues, a secret past as a Spaniard, and a love of the slow bolero. Wilson, you’re Hoyle’s much older copilot, but you haven’t cut a rug since that tragic night your old running buddy, Skinny Pete, bought it in a Wichita dance hall. Rodgers is the NASA administrator whose job is on the line unless this mission goes off. Kypros is the engineer who realizes that there’s only one way to get the Lazy Arabesque Rocket Program off the ground – and it doesn’t involve the traditional kind of exothermic chemical reactions he learned about in aerospace engineering school, but ballet d’action. Beatty Barnes Jr. is the skeptical congressman and Kypros’ former Harvard roommate who invented the Internet, thus inspiring Love Story. Everybody else is a space pirate. Let’s do this:

Rob Wilson will take this one. Yes, I am speaking in the third person. Yes, that IS a little pretentious. Okay here we go…

We open on a shot of Brendan doing the Macarena by himself in a dance studio with moody black and white, film noir style lighting a la  Robert Alton (look him up). He begins to do a Patrick Swayze (God rest his soul), slowly winding his hips as we do an extreme close up of his crotch.

FLASH and we are in a pool hall. Rob ‘mother[appreciating]’ Wilson (that’s me) rides through the double doors on a badass motorcycle and skids to a stop inches away from three hot ladies. They faint. He (I mean me) revives them and they are ‘appreciative’( they want to do it) ( sex I mean) ( at the same time) (somehow involving the motorcycle). They ask him (me) to dance. He breaks down crying (it’s really cool crying though).

FLASH Lauren is in a kitchen making eggs we pull out to reveal the starship Enterprise through her window. It blows up.

FLASH She wakes up. Rob Wilson is in bed beside her (still crying, but it’s sexy crying this time).

FLASH Jason is doing some smart shit (I only really understood like three words in his description).

FLASH Beatty is … Man I’m tired of this shit. I’m gonna go get a drink.

FLASH We all do a Bollywood dance number … even Rob Wilson but he (me) is crying (this time it’s heartfelt and humble ). Oh and the Space Pirates all have to walk the Space Plank. Rob Wilson doesn’t cry (well, okay, there is one tear like the Indian (feather) in that one recycling commercial).

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Flip-Flop!!!!!!!

Seward now holds this blog’s record for exclamation point deployment, with Kypros a close second on the strength of his last answer alone. Wilson was voted Miss Parenthetical. Schreiber, for using The Princess Bride as a referent, wins one free resuscitation from Billy Crystal and Carol Kane.

They already are working out their wordplay about how he spells his first name.

Thanks to all.

Again, Plan B is at the Naro Expanded Cinema this weekend.

A video for the road. The music will win you over:

Bonus fun fact: More than 4.1 million people “like” Slurpee’s Facebook page; in comparison, roughly 8,800 people “like” the National Endowment for the Arts. Sleep tight, my babies.

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