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Improv lifted spirits on a submarine patrol. Can it do the same for us post-pandemic? | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore Improv Group shown in a handout photo from 2019.
The Baltimore Improv Group shown in a handout photo from 2019. (Theresa Keil, Handout)

As a retired Naval officer, I can attest that submarine life is dangerous: The entire ocean is just outside the hull. You’re surrounded by piping filled with high-pressure oil and steam. Throughout the ship are high-voltage electrical cables. Any of these things could kill you, should the crew not respond properly when the systems containing them failed.

This persistent danger required nonstop training for those of us on board. We were constantly reminded of our own mortality. There was endless talk about risk management, which in retrospect, feels remarkably similar to talking about life in a post-pandemic society. Carrying that burden is exhausting.

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After months at sea, what we called “Halfway Night” would arrive. This marked the point in the deployment from which everything was downhill. Usually we celebrated with cribbage and video game tournaments. This patrol, a few of us decided to put on a comedy show. The concept we landed on was a WWF Style Staring Competition. We posted a sign-up sheet and quickly filled our roster of 16 competitors.

We figured out how to produce a show with no infrastructure. The ship’s TV speakers allowed for pre-show and competitor entrance music. We had a ring announcer, who developed fake submarine-related sponsored commercials. We made costumes and used flashlights as spotlights. There was a championship belt made from materials found around the boat. We even promoted the show with posters, and PowerPoint slides inserted in training presentations.

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The excitement for the show was palpable. Sailors organized their sleep schedule to be able to attend. The “stare down” had quickly become the must-see event of the deployment

Over 60 men crammed into the crew’s mess, which is designed to hold about 30. People had sodas and snacks. They fought for the best possible view. Over 90 minutes (plus intermission), we created an improvised show. The dramatic back story of decades of grudges was interleaved by intense rounds of blinking contests. Of the 20 people who helped execute the show, I was the only one who was trained as an improviser. That didn’t matter, they all helped deliver a show that attendees still talk about seven years later.

That night seemed unique. I’d never performed for a crowd of people whose lives were actively in danger. For an hour and a half, they forgot that perilous lifestyle. They forgot about the risks surrounding them; the oil, steam, electricity and water. They forgot they were in constant danger. That evening, they were immortal.

I’ve long believed in the power of performance. The idea that an audience and performers can work together to overcome the reality of the outside world is powerful. When performance is treated with gravity (even when it is comedy), we can all forget, even for a moment, just how scary being a human can be.

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I think a performer’s responsibility is to connect with their audience to drown out the noise of the outside world. If we collectively embrace the moment, it doesn’t matter that we lost our Nickelback CD or that the Johnson Report is due. Our GRE score becomes irrelevant. We aren’t worried about the extra 10 pounds of quarantine weight or that Daft Punk broke up. This moment is all that matters.

The last year has been incredibly difficult for all of us. We’ve quarantined in our homes, without seeing family and friends. We’ve worried that our actions could kill us or those we live with. It will be challenging, but we will learn how to exist around each other again.

Art and theater will help us make sense of it all and provide respite from the grim reality that we’ve endured. Art will provide hope to future generations, that even a pandemic could not rob us of our humanity. Theater will provide us worlds of joy, where once there was loneliness and sorrow.

As I write this, the ocean, steam, hydraulic oil and high voltage electricity still threaten the lives of submariners around the world. Those of us on land, continue to be surrounded by the looming specter of COVID-19 and its variants.

Surrounded by these reminders of how fragile life is, I’m hopeful that our new normal finds a way to embrace theater. True freedom exists in the moments there. In those moments, we can be immortal.

Thomas Dotstry (thomas@bigimprov.org) is the new managing director of Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) Theater and a retired submarine officer.

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