Live From Silver Spring!
The first rehearsal after winter break isn't going well. You can hear the yelling and giggling from down the hall. Inside Silver Spring's Colonel E. Brooke Lee Middle School, in the middle of the madness, Harry Bagdasian is trying to stage a scene.
But his actors can't sit still. Or keep track of their scripts. A few are fighting; one's being chased.
"There is no stalking in Comedy Club," Bagdasian yells. Minutes later: "Five, four, three, two . . . ." Then: "No kicking!"
Backpacks and coats are strewn all over. While some kids read quietly, a boy sits against the wall trying to burp his words. Another pretends to meditate. Someone is flicking the lights.
"Don't make me use the whistle," Bagdasian hollers.
Fifteen rehearsals remain until the two-night spring performance, when about 40 middle-schoolers he's directed–most with no acting experience–will put on a live, two-hour comedy show. About 300 students and parents will watch the show in the school's gymnasium.
It's a tall order, even for an established playwright. But on this Tuesday, Bagdasian can't help but laugh.
Even when he has to resort to "time out," or blow his whistle, Bagdasian usually keeps his cool. He's directed sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for ten years. Losing it, he's come to realize, doesn't get him anywhere.
"Some of them like testing me and seeing how crazy they can get before they become totally annoying," says Bagdasian, who wears a black New England Actors' Theatre sweatshirt to rehearsals. "It's like raising children."
The comedy club, which is supported by the University of Maryland's Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies, meets weekly to prepare its preteen version of Saturday Night Live. The show's scripts, which include sketches written by students, have been published and used by more than 1,700 schools and comedy groups worldwide.
Bagdasian cofounded the club when his older daughter, Kate, now in college, was a sixth-grader at Lee. He had been writing plays for more than 25 years. In 1972, he cofounded DC's New Playwrights' Theatre, where he taught playwriting. At the time, he made his living as a freelance scriptwriter and director.
When there weren't any teachers available to run the middle school's drama club, the principal asked Bagdasian and parent Lisa Levin Itté to help. They would share a small stipend.
Bagdasian and Itté agreed to run the drama club on one condition: They would not do drama.
"We needed a laugh," says Bagdasian, who grew up in Silver Spring. "There's this thing about doing comedy when everything else is so bloody serious."
When Bagdasian's daughter Jennie was in the sixth grade, a girl told her, "I can't be your friend anymore because I'm one of the popular kids and you're not." Bagdasian comforted Jennie, then used the line in a sketch about the popularity gap.
For the first few years, he and Itté wrote all the skits, and students performed them. For ideas, they talked to their own kids and handed out questionnaires: What would make you clean your room? What do you think goes on in the teacher's lounge? What have your parents asked you after a school dance?
They wrote about early adolescent life–pushy parents and teachers, too much standardized testing, dating. He and Itté called one sketch "This Is Your Brain on Algebra." He wrote another after hearing kids complain about the cafeteria. "There was assigned seating, no talking," Bagdasian says. "It was almost like a lockdown."
When faculty members spent 20 minutes lecturing Bagdasian and the students after someone stapled a teacher's tissue box shut, he based a skit on them. One teacher hasn't spoken to him since.
This year Bagdasian held weekly workshops to encourage kids to bring in original scripts–they wrote more than half the sketches in the show.
"Some find a creative side they didn't know existed," says Bagdasian, who had help this year from Maryland grad student Beck Krefting.
Many wrote about things that annoyed them–often adults. Seventh-grader Leah Solomon and her sister Rachel, a comedy-club alum, wrote a series called Why Can't You Be Like Your Sister? There's a sketch mocking diet crazes, inspired by a dad who tried the Atkins diet and ate twice as much meat but just as many carbs.
During a workshop critique session, a few students told their director one of his sketches wasn't funny.
"It's like any situation where someone tells you your writing sucks," says Bagdasian, who's cowriting a book called Our Laughing Matters, a guide for starting school comedy clubs. "I used to think, 'What do they know?' Then I realized–they know a lot."
In his 20 years writing and directing awards shows and tributes–including Kennedy Center events and the Military District of Washington's Spirit of America show–Bagdasian has worked with Gregory Hines, Barbara Walters, Randy Travis, Matthew Broderick, and other stars. Those names don't mean much to the kids. They're only impressed that Bagdasian's been friends with actress Yeardley Smith: "Ooohhh–you know Lisa Simpson!" they say.
With middle-schoolers, rehearsals never go as planned. Beyond the usual distractions–an 11-year-old who stuffs himself into the recycling bin, boys who peg each other with balls of masking tape–Bagdasian struggles to get kids to show up. Some desert the show for spring sports, leaving him frantically recasting.
At the beginning of a writers' workshop in January, a seventh-grader named Josh skips into Room 107 holding a piece of paper.
"Mr. B, I have a tiny piece of comedic genius!" he says, handing Bagdasian a skit called "Kilt." It's about Scottish people playing poker, a parody of the Las Vegas series Tilt on ESPN. Bagdasian is excited–Josh is one of his star actors, but he doesn't usually write.
Before Bagdasian has a chance to look at the script, Josh takes off, saying, "I gotta go serve detention."
Bagdasian never predicts what will happen on stage. "There's always a couple who totally freak," he says. "They talk to the scenery."
He's had students hide their lines on props or write them on their arms. Sometimes the kids who goof off the most act like pros at showtime.
Says Bagdasian: "You throw up your hands and say, 'Okay, maybe it is all in the hands of the gods.' "
"Wake up, sweetie, we've got a show to do," Bagdasian says to a student who has her head down on the sound board.
Behind the curtain, with 30 minutes till showtime, some boys are tackling one another, one's hopping around on a prop cane, and a few are playing GameBoy. Bagdasian's wife, Robbie McEwen, chants: "Settle down, settle down."
Bagdasian, who is dealing with last-minute problems, hears noises that worry him, so he walks backstage. Josh approaches, wearing a pirate hat for one of his scenes.
"Captain," he says, "we're not gonna make it." Kids, still yelling, surround Bagdasian. A few boys dance like the Rockettes and sing a version of "Yellow Submarine."
"Let's go, people!" Bagdasian says. "Check your scenery, check your props!"
Once the curtain opens, he stands next to a speaker so he doesn't miss any lines. Act one goes well despite a few long pauses and missing props.
During "Kilt," Josh gets the giggles, some of the poker players forget their cues, and the dialogue is muffled. Still, the skit doesn't flop–the Scottish accents are working. And the audience thinks Josh is a hoot.
Bagdasian thinks so, too. Leaning against a wall, he pushes his glasses up, shakes his head, and puts his hands over his eyes. "It went better than in dress rehearsal," he says. He's laughing so hard he's crying.