This week, I turned the reins over to my good friend and former student, Kristy Meyer, who did some research on the origins of legendary improv form, The Bat, and what makes it so special. She and the rest of the Nefarious Bakers – Kevin Hanley, Larry, Matt Martin, Annie Niehoff, and Chris Clark – will be performing the form at their upcoming shows at the STL Fringe Festival at the end of June.
In fourth grade, my Bartelso, IL classmates and I were the last class to have Sister Henrica teach as a teacher. She was a very stern nun with a nun uniform and a hat (it was not quite habit, not quite civilian clothing). She did not abide by tom-foolery, silliness, or lazy girls who skate by doing the minimum (ahem). I do remember, though, that she gave our class a very precious gift. She would regularly set aside part of an afternoon and read to us from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I see a number of our improviser friends get happy shivers when they hear someone is performing “the Bat” or a “Blind Harold. These forms allow us to tell a story through sound. I think it’s a special joy because we all enjoy the thrill of imbibing a story through our ears, much like when Sister H. would sit us all down and tell us the story of the poor boy with the golden ticket to a candy factory. It lets you rest your other senses so that your imagination is free to interpret the sounds and story in your own way. It took me a very long time to reconcile Gene Wilder with the mad, old Willy Wonka in my head.
Is it a Bat? or Ain’t it?
Back in the 90s, iO team Georgia Pacific put together a very specific lights-out form known as the Bat. It’s official, I’ve scoured the internet and this team of improv legends performed a 9 month run of shows in the dark. Have you heard of Georgia Pacific? Corner one of your Chicago Improv Elders and ask them about these legends. Georgia Pacific was comprised of Joe Bill (professed to be the inventor of “The Bat”), TJ Jagadowski, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock, you guys know, right?), Pat Shay, Lisa Lewis (no link she’s moved on to something non-Googleable), Chris Day, Kris Hammond, Mark Sutton, and Bumper Carroll (also non-Googleable).
If you Google all this stuff, (and trust me, I have) details about the Bat are spread in tidbits across the web. Katie Nunn did a little digging and filled me with information from friends up north in Chicagoland. Most web pages give credit to Joe Bill and oftentimes all of Georgia Pacific.One of the most common ways to improvise in the dark is to just do a Blind Harold (Which is what the Nefarious Bakers are working on). You do everything you’d do in the Harold, Opener, to the three beats, with games in between. Edits are become very important, and are signaled through a sound established in the opener. Look for the wind, ocean, clapping, snaps, or other clear soundscapes as clues to scene edits.
My team — the Nefarious Bakers — has been working on the Blind Harold for weeks now in preparation for our STL Fringe Festival Performances. As we do it, it seems like each of my teammates has really found a groove in working in the dark. Kevin Hanley is becoming the master of background sounds. Seriously, ask him to do a creepy banjo or a monster, and he’ll drop everything to see you laugh. Annie Niehoff, is so good at crazy voices. One minute she’s a haughty socialite, the next, a creepy old dude trying to get into the socialite’s pants. Matt Martin has this crazy good ability to do over-the-top and hilarious voices. Chris Clark does these creepy brilliant lay-ons and twists and turns…and if you want to hear him play a woman…well that’s probably gonna happen here. Larry <Last Name Redacted> has been cleverly crafting big and freaky science fiction characters. As for me, I’m just glad to have a reason to sing in the dark.
OK, but that’s not the BAT.
While we’d love to claim that our show will be a “Bat” because the name is so amazingly awesome…it’s actually…technically NOT a bat. We are definitely doing a blind Harold.
The distinction is this — The Bat is very specific. It uses soundscape as an opener, a closer, and throughout the piece for mood and feel and scene inspiration. That is a completely NON-verbal form of communication. This requires the improvisers to rely completely on their ears to sense and use the soundscape mood and vibe in order to create a cohesive show. We are still using those training wheels known as words and a linear story for openers and game slots.
As forms seem to do, the form of the Bat and other aural forms has evolved and morphed and become wrapped in legend. In the end, it is like any improv show.
Where Can I Hear It?
Enough! Enough already! Come see our shows at Fringe!
Also — go see the Creepy Basement Players do long-form and short-form that same weekend! If you have a Fringe Badge, you’ll have a special deal to get two tickets for $15!
(Also call a Baker or Basement Player if you get confused on how to buy your tickets.)