"Quick! What’s My Name?": Mark Meer On Sleepless Weekends at Die-Nasty’s Soap-A-Thon

mark meer

This weekend is more exciting than Christmas for the stars of Die-Nasty, the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award and Canadian Comedy Award (2006)winning  live improvised soap opera that has been running weekly in Edmonton since 1991. This weekend is Die-Nasty’s annual fundraiser, The 18th Annual Soap-A-Thon, and it returns to the Varscona Theatre, running CONTINULOUSLY from Friday, September 10th at 7pm until Sunday, September 12th at 9pm. One of the stars of Die-Nasty, and arguably the King of the Soap-A-Thon, Mark Meer, who typically improvises for the entire duration of the Soap each year, was nice enough to answer a slew of questions I had about this incredible and magical theatrical event via email from Edmonton.

Amanda Campbell (AC): I read that you attended a High School that didn’t have a drama program and the closest you had come to acting by the time you started your BSC in University was playing Dungeons and Dragons, until you had the opportunity to be mentored by the members of Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. How did that mentorship come about? What was it that first made you think, “I’d like to try Improv!”? And when did you entirely abandon the Petri Dish in favour of zombies and international glamour girls? (the OBVIOUS choice)
Mark Meer (MM): I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my early roles in elementary school Christmas pageants, but – yes, by junior high onwards, I really only had D&D and other RPGs as any sort of creative outlet, acting-wise. I really wished that my high school had any kind of drama program, but studying one Shakespeare play a year in English class was as good as it got. However, my parents had season tickets to the Citadel since I was nine or ten, so I attended theatre regularly. When I moved to Edmonton to go to the U of A, I auditioned for a show at the Citadel’s Teen Festival of the Arts, and landed a part as a smarmy sportscaster in a show written and directed by Kent Staines called Hero Bound, loosely based on the Ben Johnson steroid scandal. That was when I actually decided that I wanted to be an actor, and pretty much stopped attending my university classes… though admittedly, my previous attendance had been sporadic, at best.
The same year, I met the Trolls, and Wes Borg invited me to audition for a sketch comedy show they were directing at the ’92 Teenfest. The show was directed by the Trolls, but written and performed by the teens they cast. They suggested improv as a good way to generate ideas for sketches, and referred us to Patti Stiles at Rapid Fire Theatre. Most of the rest of the cast had played Theatresports in high school, but I’d never even heard of it (though I’d always been a fan of Monty Python, SCTV, Saturday Night Live…). One workshop is all it took to hook me.
AC: Do you remember the first character you played in your first Soap-A-Thon? And who was your first character in your first Season of Die-Nasty?
MM: The very first character I played in the original Soap-A-Thon back in 1993 was a drifter named Lon Wolf. I started my shift at 4AM. The costume was my street clothes, a trenchcoat and a toque. As I recall, he met a messy end after about ten hours, perishing in a knife-fight with a far more popular character, and I moved on to play someone else with a proper costume. After that, I guested several times in the ’93-94 season as a South American cult leader named Pablo Don Carlos Vasquez Maria Conchita Alonso. My first regular season character as a core cast member was the always-potentially-evil Dr. E. He first appeared in the 1994 Soap-A-Thon and carried over into the ‘94-95 season.
…Yes, I remember all the details… but then again, I can also tell you how much The Thing from the Fantastic Four can lift. I’m a total continuity/trivia nerd and a fan of minutiae. (FYI – The Thing, aka Ben Grimm, can lift/press 85 tons).
AC: (I love that he knows this). So, especially for readers in Toronto who are, I think generally, completely unfamiliar with the idea of an Improvised Soap Opera, and who may be fascinated, intrigued and perhaps even slightly incredulous at the connotation of people improvising continuously for 50+ hours, could you explain how the Soap-A-Thon typically is structured? There are obviously breaks for you to eat- and people come and go throughout the weekend… Also where does the food come from?
MM: We take a fifteen-minute intermission every two hours, for the sake of both the audience and cast. For me, that fifteen minutes is usually a frantic rush consisting of a bathroom visit, popping out into the alley for a cigarette, possibly changing clothes, and grabbing something to eat. Local restaurants sponsor the event with donations of food, so there’s always fresh, healthy meals available for the actors, musicians, technicians, and directors. Our concession is also open around the clock.
…And I should mention that there have actually been some improv soaps in Toronto, peopled with such great performers as Albert Howell, Raoul Bhaneja, Peter Oldring, Pat Kelly, et al. And we’ve welcomed some of Toronto’s finest improvisers as guests at the Soap-A-Thon, including Kurt Smeaton, Carolyn Taylor, Rebecca Northan, and Caitlin Howden. This year, we have one of our alumni back for a visit – Mr. Ron Pederson of Impromptu Splendor.
AC: (Good to know!) There is obviously some forethought put into the Soap-a-Thon, as there is always a strong established theme- this year we know that you’ll be improvising from within a wake for Orson Cain, “the grandest, most storied inventor and entrepreneur in the history of historic Edmonton-By-The-Sea.” Who comes up with the original premise prior to the Soap and how much discussion of the characters that will appear (and who will play them) is done beforehand? Do you typically bring costume pieces and random props with you that you think may come in handy for whatever the theme is?
MM: We try to decide organically, as a group… which means it takes forever – not because we disagree that much, but because there’s over a dozen of us. But once we all manage to get together in a room, one idea usually sparks everybody’s imagination, and quickly becomes the front-runner. Once we have the concept, we can roughly decide what types of characters we need to form the core of that setting, but those kinds of decisions are often made on the afternoon of the event. In the past, I’ve brought two entire suitcases to the show, and some of those costumes never see the stage. Sometimes, the most beloved and hilarious characters are produced by grabbing a random wig and coat from the theatre’s costume room during an intermission and asking the director “What’s my name?”
AC: The Improvised Soap Opera is directed by veteran Improv hero Dana Andersen, can you explain his role in shaping the weekend’s machinations? How can Improv be “directed”?
MM: Essentially, Dana “calls” the scene over the microphone, so the improvisers and the audience hear it at the same time. He’ll set up the location, who is present, and the situation at the top of the scene. Then we run with it. Dana then keeps track of what plotlines develop from the subsequent action, and lets that inform his future calls regarding those characters.
AC: Apart from being a compact entity and show unto itself, is the structure for the Soap-A-Thon very different from the weekly Die-Nasty shows?
MM: It’s basically an entire season of Die-Nasty compressed into one weekend, with extreme sleep deprivation thrown into the mix. Because of its nature, the Soap-A-Thon is also usually set at some sort of event that would bring a large group of people together for a weekend.
AC: You achieved sort of mythic stature in 1995 by being the first in the Die Nasty troupe to “go the distance” and improvise for the full duration of the Soap-A-Thon, and I read that by January of this year, you had improvised for over 50 hours sixteen times. (Amazing!) In 1995, did you set that as a challenge for yourself, or did you just get caught up in the fun of it and not want to leave?
MM: Yes, this will be my seventeenth time all the way through, counting the shows we’ve done in England. I certainly wanted to go the distance at the second Soap-A-Thon in 1994, but Ian, our director at the time, benched me for a six hour nap on the Sunday morning. He was honestly worried I might do myself physical damage, and wanted me fresh for the final shifts that night. The following year, I convinced him that I could do it… and so I did. Once others saw it could be done, they tried it, with Dana Andersen and Patti Stiles being the first to join me in the 50+Hour Club. Now I think there’s at least twenty people on both sides of the Atlantic who’ve completed the entire thing…
AC: It is an exceptionally impressive feat to improvise for over two days straight- I have heard that sleep deprivation can be marvellously freeing for improvisers because exhaustion and adrenaline are both very conducive for eliminating the self-censor that performers often battle against and can make for a more primal, or instinctual performance. Practically though, improvising aside, it is really difficult (obviously) for the body to go for that long without sleep. Do you have a process that you do in the days before the Soap starts to prepare yourself for the Improv marathon? Or is it just a lot of coffee and energy drinks?
MM: The first time I did it, it was like being on acid. Seriously. I hallucinated a fair amount, had uncontrollable laughing fits, odd mood swings… As I’ve “gone the distance” year after year, these symptoms have fallen away. I still get tired, but I don’t really reach that state of utter euphoria and madness that I did the first four or five times. I sort of miss it. I compared notes with Patti Stiles, who’s also completed multiple Soap-A-Thons, and she’s had the same experience. Patti swears by no caffeine at all, just water and juice. I tend to have a cup of coffee when I normally would during the day, but it’s a real mistake to rely on it to keep you awake – you WILL crash. I limit myself to one Red Bull a day, drink plenty of water, and try to sleep in the day before the show. The night after, I’ll usually sleep for at least twelve hours.
AC: I heard that there is a “big book” where remembrances are written down by the performers after the Soap-A-Thon has ended, which presumably is meant to capture a bit of that particular experience for posterity. Do you ever video tape the Soaps or do you think that Improv loses most of its magic outside of its own particular moment in time?
MM: Well, past Soap-A-Thons have been taped, but the real problem is finding another 50 hours to sit down and watch it all… and of course, nearly ANY theatrical performance is a different experience on archival video.
AC: I read that your alter-ego Susanna Patchouli, who has been the host of the Improvised Variety/Talk Show Oh Susanna! since 1999, was born out of Die Nasty and a Veronica (as in Betty and Veronica) costume. Has Susanna ever reappeared in the Soaps or do you revel in the opportunity to create new characters?
MM: I do enjoy creating new characters, but I’m a real fan of bringing back old favourites for a visit. Susanna Patchouli has showed up in both the regular season and the Soap-A-Thon, but as a character that requires over an hour in the make-up chair, her utility is somewhat limited. On the other hand, I’m always bringing back my other characters like children’s performer The Dancing Man, doctor of journalism Fisher T. Johnson, the Robert DeNiro-esque Jerry Cashola, and others, but usually just for a shift or two. Lately, I’ve been sticking to one character for the whole thing. For example, I played the ghoulish Timburton Hemlocke for the entirety of the 50-hour London Improvathon in January, and last Soap-A-Thon (set at a high school reunion), I just played the principal, Principal Character, except for a brief four-hour stint as comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
AC: Since emerging into Edmonton’s theatre scene in 1992, you have become one of the city’s most iconic and beloved improvisers, and you also act in plays. Improv and Improvisers are a vibrant and vital aspect of the Edmontonian theatre community, with a rich tradition, where most performers seem to permeate fluidly between doing plays, Improvising and also doing sketch comedy. Things in Toronto are far more segregated. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of this fluidity for the performers and for the community as a whole? How much do the audiences overlap? Would most of the audience for something like Oh Susanna or Die Nasty be the same one that would attend plays at the Fringe Festival? Do you think there is a conglomeration of people who frequent the Citadel Theatre who are also moonlighting Die Hards? Or does the theatre audience there tend to be more split?
MM: Well, I blush to hear adjectives like “beloved” and “iconic” applied to me, but thank-you. I think one of the great things about the Edmonton theatre community is the high level of cross-pollination between artistic forms – not just between theatre and improv, but also sketch, stand-up, even music and dance. We’re very lucky here. Visiting performers always seem to comment on and marvel at it. It fosters a spirit of co-operation and community. In fact, one of the founding principles of the Varscona’s variety shows, both Oh Susanna! and the Johnny and Poki Variety Hour before it, has always been bringing artists together.
I haven’t done any surveys or comprehensive audience break-downs, but I’d say that each of the regular improv shows (Die-Nasty, Oh Susanna!, Theatresports, Chimprov) has its own distinct audience, with a bit of overlap between each. Edmonton does have some very dedicated theatre fans that seem to see EVERYTHING. If someone enjoys improv, they’re likely to see many of the shows, but its also likely that they’ll have a favourite that they’ll attend every performance of, and others that they catch when they can. The same applies to other theatre, I think. There are some people who only go to shows at the Fringe, some who only subscribe to one company’s season – but there are many who try to see as much as they can.
AC: Die Nasty has an alliance with Improv troupes in England and three British Improvisers are coming to join the Soap-A-Thon this year, and I know that members of Die-Nasty have also gone to England to join the Improvathon they do there. How did this collaboration come about?
MM: The late, great British theatre icon/guru Ken Campbell attended a Die-Nasty performance in 2001 when he was in town performing The History of Comedy, Part One: Ventriloquism. He loved the show, and came out to the bar with us afterwards. I was sitting next to him, and the Soap-A-Thon came up in conversation, as it often does with me. (I’m obsessed, I admit it – it’s one of my favourite things to do as a performer.) Ken was the man famously responsible for the 24-hour play The Warp, so this piqued his interest. In 2005, he secured a grant to send his pupil and colleague Sean McCann over to Canada for the Soap-A-Thon to participate, observe and report on what he found, and the rest just fell into place. Dana Andersen and Davina Stewart went to England for the first London Improvathon, which I think lasted 36 hours. Since then, Dana, Davina, my wife Belinda (Cornish) and I (and several other Die-Nasty members) have made regular trips to England for their 50-hour show, and at least three or four Brits have always come here for ours. This year, we’re welcoming theatre royalty Alan Cox (one of the stars of Young Sherlock Holmes and the impossibly-talented son of the renowned Brian Cox), along with Adam Meggido and the lovely Ruth Bratt of The Sticking Place and Showstopper: The Improvised Musical. Adam’s currently responsible for the organization of the London show – it’s always nice to be able to play host to him, since he takes such good care of us.
AC: Die Nasty has travelled not only to England, but also to Los Angeles, where Joe Flaherty started his own Soap The Soap Also Rises, so I was wondering, now that Ron Pederson (with Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus), is valiantly thrusting improvisation into the theatrical world of Toronto, and especially since he returns to Die Nasty whenever he’s home in Edmonton– can we in Toronto dare to dream of a day that you guys will come visit and play with us? Or do we have to rent a bus to Edmonton?
MM: As I said, there have been improv soaps in Toronto before, and I certainly hope there will be again… because I want to come play in them! I had the opportunity to appear in the entire run of Joe’s most recent soap at Second City L.A. in 2008 – it was a blast.
AC: (I hope so too!!) Lastly, what is one thing that you are really excited for specifically in this upcoming Soap-A-Thon?
MM: Aforementioned Toronto improv genius Kurt Smeaton is unable to attend this year, due to the recent birth of his first child. He’s requested that, in his honour, I play a character named “Dick Ballsenshaft”, and I’ve taken him up on it. I can’t wait to find out exactly who this guy IS…
I’m sure the Die-Hards wait with bated breath!
This year the Soap-a-Thon cast includes: Mark Meer, Cathleen Rootsaert, Donovan Workun, Belinda Cornish, Davina Stewart, Stephanie Wolfe, Peter Brown, Matt Alden, Jeff Haslam, Leona Brausen, Sheri Somerville, Kory Mathewson and Tom Edwards, joined by the United Kingdom’s own Alan Cox, London’s Showstopper stars Ruth Bratt and Adam Meggido, Rosie Wilkinson of Liverpool’s Impropriety, National Theatre of the World founder and Die-Nasty life-partner Ron Pederson, DN Day-One-Dame Kirsten Van Ritzen, as well as a whole bloodline’s worth of Edmonton’s best and bravest cousins, kinsfolk & kindred connections. The cast also welcome back beloved founding DN member and 50+hour Soap-A-Thon veteran, International Improv Matriarch Patti Stiles! Edmonton-By-The-Sea’s mayor and long-loved eulogist is Grandpa Dana Andersen. Providing songs of inspiration is Brother Paul Morgan Donald with Uncle Jan “Chips” Randall and their Improvising Technical Wizard and Master Embalmer is Cousin Brad Fischer.

The 18th Annual Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon plays CONTINULOUSLY from Friday, September 10th at 7pm until Sunday, September 12th at 9pm at the Varscona Theatre (10329-83rd Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta). Single admission tickets (no re-entry permitted) for the event are $15 during prime-time (7pm-1 am) and $12 at all other times of the day and night. Audience members also have the option of purchasing a weekend pass for $40, which lets you come and go freely throughout the entire Soap-A-Thon. All tickets & passes go on sale at 5pm Friday, September 10 at the VarsconaTheatre box office (10329-83 Avenue) and are available all weekend long! All ticket sales are CASH ONLY. If you’re in Edmonton this weekend, this is where you ought to be. Stay awake for the wake.

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