Improvising Every Second
The secret history of ACoT director Latifah Taormina, from Second City to the Committee and beyond
People will surprise you. Everyone you meet brings with them an entire novel's worth of stories. It's the discovery of that narrative we stumble upon that deepens our relationship with each other and gives personal interaction that tasty air of mystery. The truth is that even when you think you know the person sitting next to you, a detail will present itself that throws your inner-portrait of this acquaintance into a new light.
Case in point: Latifah Taormina, the tall yet sprightly white-haired woman who keeps the Austin Circle of Theaters running like that guy on The Ed Sullivan Show kept plates spinning. Given the grace and care that she brings to her work, you may wonder how such a gentle, maternal being ever got involved in the world of theatre and the often tumultuous strains of fundraising and heartache that go along with it.
The answer to that question may surprise you. And it certainly is enough to fill up an entire novel.
Well, we don't have that much space, so let's get right to it.
After graduating from Bennington College at the tippy-top of the Sixties, Taormina (then going by her given name, Irene Ryan) moved to New York City, "like any self-respecting wannabe actress," to break into the acting game. She ran the usual gamut of day jobs and just-to-stay-alive jobs while auditioning and taking acting classes from the legendary Lee Grant in hopes of hitting the big time. During this initial time of struggle and survival, she was constantly dogged by a former classmate by the name of Alan Arkin.
"He'd gone off to Chicago, to Second City, which was just starting at the time," she says. "He was always on my case. 'You should come to Chicago!' But if you set your sights on New York, there's no way you could think of going to Chicago."
Months passed until one day she received yet another phone call from Arkin. "He said that Second City was starting a New York company and this guy Alan Myerson was coming to the city to audition actors for the company and he'd set up an appointment for me at such-and-such a time and such-and-such a place and blah blah blah blah blah. Clunk!
"I had no way of saying I didn't want to do it. I had no way of knowing where he was calling from. So I didn't want to embarrass him. And I went not wanting the part."
How can an out-of-work actor not want the part? "Improvisation wasn't my thing. In class we used improvisation to, you know, get to your inner truth. To find your vulnerabilities. It was all sort of Method-acting stuff. But I wasn't a sketch comedy type of person."
Feeling guilty on behalf of Arkin, Taormina went to the audition and met Myerson, "who was very uptight and shy about talking to New York actors," she recalls. She made it her goal to make him feel more comfortable and to do well at the audition so she wouldn't make her friend look bad. "And, of course," she sums up, "I was great. Because I didn't care. And I was offered the job."
She was on the verge of turning down the offer until she found out how much it paid, which "was a lot more than I was getting paid at my jobs." So she quickly became a member of the Second City Chicago troupe.
The company at the time included Joan Rivers, improv guru Del Close, Roger Bowen, and Avery Schreiber, among others. "These were all Class A improvisers." After a very brief period of rehearsal, Taormina (now going by her professional name Irene Riordan) was told she was going on the next night.
"I was scared to death," she says, "So I had seen Elaine May do something with this character that I thought I could do something like it. So the next night in the set I did that character in an improv. And, of course, that's the secret. Get a character. And however the character responds is how you respond. It's not you, it's your character. Then we did a musical thing, and I could always carry a tune, so I was okay with that."
As the months passed, she grew closer to Myerson, who eventually proposed to her right before he was transferred to the New York company. After joining him in the Big Apple for a spell, Myerson eventually said, "Why are we doing this for other people? We should do this for us.' And it was just like the old movie. 'Let's put on a show!'"
Realizing that they couldn't start an improv group where Second City was already going strong, they needed to find a new city in which to begin. "Alan was set on doing it in a city that had a large college crowd and where the city is kind of narcissistic. He felt that in order for it to work, it had to have a young crowd, and the city had to want it to be theirs. So I asked him, 'Where is that?'"
Myerson had one answer: "San Francisco."
The couple immediately pulled up stakes and headed west, armed only with their encyclopedic knowledge of how things worked. Taormina says, "I'd worked for an off-Broadway producer, so I knew how to make a budget and how limited partnerships worked. I knew what things cost and where to get information we needed." The main ingredients missing were a name and capital.
They chose to call the new group the Committee, as a reference to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that had inspired raging protests at the nearby UC Berkeley campus. "We also chose that name because we wanted the company to work like a collective. No matter what position you held, you got paid the same as everyone else and had as much creative input as anyone else because we wanted to practice what we preached."
Funding, as usual, was the trickier part. They sat down with a young lawyer friend of theirs and created a list of anyone who was important in the Bay area. "Whether they were civic leaders or socialites or government people or whatever. And then we asked, 'Is there anyone who knows anyone on this list?' And there was one person who knew someone. So that's where we started."
They decided they needed $50,000 to get started. So they found a local lawyer who had a big name and asked him to set up an escrow account for them in which to keep the investments as they came in. "Who were we to these people?" Taormina remembers. "How did they know we wouldn't take the money and run? No one knew us." Therefore, the connection to a rock-solid name was critical.
Raising the funds at $1,200 per investor, the couple hit upon a clever scheme. "When we got the first $1,200, we would tell people that we had $5,000. Then when we had $5,000, we'd say we had 10, and on and on.
"We were living in this cheap hotel in San Francisco, and it had a creaky old telephone system. Every morning we'd go down to the Walgreens drugstore with a pile of dimes and start calling people on our list. We'd never ask for money, just advice. When we were out of dimes, we'd go to the cafeteria and have breakfast and then go out and meet with the people we had set up appointments with."
The meetings paid off including one with a whole team of psychiatrists from a local mental hospital, all of whom became investors and sometimes in unexpected ways. "This big Italian guy really liked us," Taormina recalls. "And he got us this incredible deal on a venue an old indoor bocce ball court. It was near Columbus and Broadway in the heart of North Beach. We couldn't have gotten a better location if we'd tried."
Naturally, the next step was to build a company. "Alan was set on having at least one local person and then we hit on the idea of hiring anyone from Second City that had been fired. We hired one local college kid, Scott Beach, and Alan went to New York in a drive-away car to hire the rest of the actors." When he got back to San Francisco with a company in tow, Myerson and Taormina housed them all in their apartment until they had their own places. "We were improvising every second," she says.
The original Committee, which included Taormina (then going by the name Jessica Myerson), Larry Hankin, Hamilton Camp, John Brent (co-creator of the cult hit album How to Speak Hip), Gary Goodrow, and others, "was not the most well-known," but when it opened for business in April 1963, it was "an instant hit," Taormina says. "We paid back our investors within six months."
The shows mixed pieces created through the group's work together and through the audience-participation brand of improvisation that has become familiar in the decades since, all done in the buttoned-down, suit-and-tie style of the time. Still it was the vibe of the time that gave the Committee its tart taste.
The group often turned its hand to political material. "Alan said, if you're going to make a political comment, it better have some teeth to it. So we read everything. We were assigned reading so we could find out what was going on in the world." This sometimes led to comedy with explosive results, as at benefit for B'nai Brith in which they performed a sketch about two guys who had been to Vietnam, "and they've learned to be such animals that when they come back they can't stop being animals." Members of the audience were so offended that the show halted and became a raging argument among the troupe, the offended party, and everyone in between. "People were jumping up on stage saying, 'I don't want to be down here! I like the way it feels up here!' One guy slugged the guy who brought him to the show, he was so offended. Peter Falk was there and got into it with us." Taormina decided the best she could do was to go down among the audience and be peaceful, to serve as an example that things didn't have to be so heated and angry. "This little tiny woman spotted me and yelled, 'Vhy don't you go back vhere you came from?!'
"We did provocative work, but we were trying to provoke thinking, not trying to shock sensibilities."
In many ways, the Committee made a perfect fit for their era. ("We opened the doors, and the Sixties came in" is how Taormina describes it.) They hoped that by pointing things out, the audience would see the truth around them and go on to better lives. The theatre became a gathering point for much of what the era is remembered for: peace and civil rights rallies, police harassment ("Alan would get arrested, and the cops would take him into the middle of Oakland in the middle of the night and drop him with no way to get home. So, I'd have to go looking for him."), and drugs (the Grateful Dead used the theatre as a practice room on off-nights).
The Committee's knack for politically charged comedy brought them acclaim from the uppermost recesses of the entertainment industry, and offers began to flood in. A Los Angeles branch of the group was soon created which would draw performers like Howard Hesseman (headed for fame on WKRP in Cincinnati) and Carl Gottlieb (destined to co-write the screenplay for Jaws), among others. Television appearances soon followed.
"We were on everything: the Smothers Brothers show, the Tom Jones show, Merv Griffin. We went on The Tonight Show. Twice. We said, 'Let's screw' on The Tonight Show. They told us not to say it. Then they said, 'Say it and we'll bleep it.' And it killed in the audience, and Johnny [Carson] did his deadpan, and it was a big hit that led to another invitation to the show." Today The Tonight Show is a rather anemic affair. But in the days when the Committee made waves on it, when Carson brought on huge names to gab and smoke and create industry legends, it could open the doors to comedy stardom. Especially if you made Johnny laugh, which was a feat. The Committee pulled it off.
Comedy albums were recorded. They did a two-month run on Broadway. A filmed collection of bits called A Session With the Committee made the circuits. And an offer to create the group's own television show was hammered out.
"We were flown out to England to work on the idea of a TV show, and we met with all sorts of people. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin. The Beatles." Superstardom was looking inevitable.
Then, as Taormina tells it, "Gary Goodrow was interviewed on a late-night radio show on Long Island, and the host asked him about Nixon. Goodrow just said, 'Nixon's a fag,' and that was the end of the offers. The TV deal went away after that. David Steinberg ended up doing the show we were going to do. It didn't take off with him either, though."
The Committee eventually drifted apart. Taormina focused on raising her son Lincoln, who was born mere days after the troupe opened its doors. She took acting jobs now and again in films both great (The Graduate) and cult (Brian De Palma's early comedy Get to Know Your Rabbit with Tom Smothers; Billy Jack and don't get her started on that film's creator and leading ego Tom Laughlin). She did TV (The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Happy Days) and had a couple of close calls with memorable roles (Peter Bogdanovich told her that she was his second choice for the Cloris Leachman role in The Last Picture Show; she was up for the role of Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which also went to Leachman.) Alan Myerson made the jump to film, directing Steelyard Blues with a post-Klute Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland supported by a dozen of their old Committee cohorts. But it was the end, for his and Taormina's marriage, as well as the group they founded. "We went different ways."
However, Taormina still carries her accomplishments with her and a laserlike memory of what she helped create. She is often reminded of the importance of her work, such as the time she met Esther's Follies co-founder Shannon Sedwick, who told her that seeing the Committee perform at UT in their heyday inspired the creation of Austin's own renowned comedy institution.
Yet Taormina keeps these floodlit accomplishments in perspective. She is proud of her son and the spiritual journey that followed on the heels of the dissolution of the comedy troupe. She became involved in the spiritual movement Subud (which, incidentally, led to the Jessica portion of her professional name) and opened her to a more expansive view of the universe and humanity's place in it. A later conversion to Islam led to another name change, the current Latifah, and a remarriage provided the surname that now gives her full name that poetic ring.
Good improv is based on surprise, too. The chance to see something happen in real time before our eyes, something that takes a turn right in front of us, is what makes it so appealing and exciting to witness. It's the opportunity to see something like life crackle and pop on stage.
It is improv that gave Latifah Taormina the background necessary to take on a huge undertaking like ACoT. And it's that spark of surprise that has given her life the rich, textured twists and turns for which any novelist would sell his soul to fill up his pages.