- Mark Chalfant, Dave Johnson and Topher Bellavia at Som Records for the Neutrino Video Project (Photo by Maura Judkis)
The cast of the Neutrino Video Project circles up 11 minutes before they’re about to make a fully improvised movie in real time, screened for a live audience, and actor Dave Johnson turns to me.
“Would you be willing to be an extra if we need one?” I look at him incredulously. “Just someone who would be willing to turn around and say a single line, like ‘what?’”
“It’s a kissing scene,” says actor Mark Chalfant.
I’ll be following the two of them around, along with cameraman and Washington Improv Theater managing director Topher Bellavia, and “runner” Ryan Wesley, as they shoot their segments of an improvised movie up and down 14th street. I’ve been briefed on staying out of their shot, and told that I should be ready to sprint down the street at a moment’s notice.
The lean filmmaking team goes over their hand signals.
“This means wrap it up,’ says Bellavia, as he circles his hand in a lasso motion. One tap from Wesley means they have one minute left, and two taps means 30 seconds. The other teams in the room are all asking questions: Is it too dark in the alley? Is our battery situation OK?
Back in the circle, Mike Bass reminds the group that they are battling the dwindling evening light.
“I don’t want you to show the audience we’re A team, B team, C team,” he says. “I don’t want them to know that we’ve got this down to a science. Let them figure that out.”
He’s only halfway right. Yes, the improvised movie that is the product of each Neutrino show is tightly formatted, with the timing and handoff of footage carefully rehearsed. And it has to be - with members of the troupe racing all over the neighborhood to shoot the film, there must be deadlines and guidelines, or else audiences would sit in a darkened theater watching a test pattern - a sight that Neutrino cast members dread, because it means that they were late with their video.
But timing is the only thing they have down to a science - everything else, from where they go, what they do, and who they include in their film, is a variable. When I raced around with a Neutrino team on Saturday, it was clear that anything could happen in their allotted eight minutes of film.
When the cast heads down to the theater, Bass gives a brief introduction, and then requests some items from the audience, “to prove to you that this is actually live.”
“Dig into your pocketbooks, you can give us cash,” he says.
One man hands them a floral-print tape measure.
“Why is your tape measure so adorable?” Bass asks. The man refers the question to the woman sitting next to him. Group A takes the tape measure and sprints out of the theater.
A woman hands Chalfant her glasses case, which is shaped like a tiny handbag.
“You can use it as a purse if you want to,” she tells him.
He opens it up, and it’s empty.
“You didn’t trust us with your glasses?” he asks.
They’ve also requested a word from the audience, and someone yells out, “Pancake!”
And then it’s group B’s turn to take off running through the front of the theater.
“Pancake, pancake, pancake,” says Chalfant, as he sprints through the doors, up the stairs and into a Source conference room. “Any inspirations?”
They don’t say much. Bellavia’s camera follows a trail of paper cranes taped to the window over to Johnson, seated at the piano, and Chalfant, at a table holding the glasses case/purse. As Johnson plays the piano, they’re off.
“I can’t get used to what it’s like to see without my glasses,” he says which spins into a skit about how not having glasses gives Chalfant a distorted sense of reality.
“All of my senses are heightened,” he says. “Is this how you became enlightened?”
Bellavia gets a tap on the shoulder from Wesley. Time is up. He hands off the tape.
“I messed up a tiny bit, the camera shook,” he says. “Say it’s at 2:12, cut there. For the music, something sensual or wistful at the end.”
We bound down the stairs, with Wesley stopping at the control room to hand off the tape. Bellavia, Chalfant and Johnson go to Som Records, next door to the source, discussing what their characters should do next.
“I’m an enlightened spiritual master,” said Johnson, explaining that he ended the previous segment by warning Chalfant to be careful in his heightened state, to introduce an element of danger.
As soon as they burst through the doors of Som, the camera is rolling again.
“Take her easy,” says Johnson.
“All the album cover art,” says Chalfant, wild-eyed. “I feel like my eyes are gonna pop out of my head or something.”
Meanwhile, Wesley and I are pressed up against the entryway wall of the record store, trying to make ourselves invisible to stay out of the shot (and not succeeding, as you can see 30 seconds into the video below). “Shit,” says Wesley, backing further into the corner. The two other people in the record store ignore us completely.
Chalfant moves into full-on freak-out mode. Bellavia cuts.
“I’m gonna focus in on the record and go crazy,” he says, spinning the camera around some psychedelic-looking record covers on the wall. Johnson and Chalfant put their faces close to a record on a turntable, making sure they catch the best light.
“It’s like I’m hallucinating - but it’s reality!” says Chalfant.
“This is a good sign,” replies Johnson. “It means you’re on your way, little man.” They flip through a bin of records.
“Look at her face! Her face - stretched out! It’s like, a really long face!” Chalfant says of Grace Jones’s unhinged jaw on the cover of “Slave to the Rhythm.”
“She’s bald!” he says, pulling out a Sinead O’Connor. “I just want to rub my hand...”
They head to the sidewalk and his character totally loses it.
“You can’t go back! Embrace the feeling that you’re having!” yells Johnson. Bellavia cuts, handing the tape off to Wesley with the instructions, “Trippy music at the end.”
The rest of the crew takes off sprinting across the street towards the Room & Board furniture store, and I struggle to keep up.
“If I extend my fear, I’d be seeking a place without stimuli,” says Chalfant, who points to a rock garden on the side of the store. He hops the fence. Johnson and Chalfant pretend they’re in a Japanese garden, with Johnson drawing patterns in the gravel with his fingertips.
“The sound of those rocks is deafening!” says Chalfant, holding the glasses case.
“Don’t open it,” warns Johnson, “You are opening a cathedral of demons!”
But it’s too late. Chalfant has produced his own pair of glasses, and put them on his face.
“It’s all back to normal,” he says, turning to Johnson in amazement. “Maybe some of us weren’t meant to be enlightened.”
Two older couples stop to watch, amused. Wesley is getting agitated, because they are late. He taps Bellavia once again.
“You’re like a drug addict, except with enlightenment,” said Chalfant.
After they hand off the tape to Wesley, we’re sprinting across 14th Street again, once the light changes. The other teams are already waiting in front of the theater, ready to weave the separate threads of the movie together.
“Dave, are you married?” asks Bass, about the character Johnson has been playing in the show.
“I’ve kept my ring on.”
“Ok, you’re married to Tara [Maher]. She’s been cheating on her husband.”
A few feet away, Michelle Swaney is on camera explaining how she’s found a great guy for her sister, played by Catherine Deadman. Deadman is measuring the stripes on Chalfant’s shirt with her floral measuring tape. She tells him his face looks like a pancake, he takes off his glasses, and sprints down the street in terror. And that’s a wrap.