Everyone has a story to tell. And from the perspective of Mark Robbins, it's those random tales of everyday life — whether serious, long-winded or totally ridiculous — that make for the greatest segues into the unlimited world of improvisational comedy.
It's why the Spokane comedian, teacher and musician (also recognizable as the doofy husband in those Northern Quest Resort & Casino TV ads) has enlisted a diverse cast of locals to serve as the verbal inspiration for his live improv show "Microbiography." These oral autobiographers have included newspaper columnists and TV news personalities; next is a well-known Spokane bartender.
Next Friday during Microbiography III, Robbins and two other improvisers, Pat Thomas and Mara Baldwin — the trio call themselves "The Freedom Association" — will take to the stage to perform on-the-spot interpretations of unscripted stories shared by two guest monologists. In the same vein as the Upright Citizens Brigade's acclaimed ASSSSCATS improv series, suggested words and phrases from the audience prompt the stories.
Rather than directly re-enact the monologue as presented, performers pull loose inspiration from its overarching theme or use specific details as the basis for a sketch. And while Microbiography is very much grounded in the comedy genre, Robbins also likens the show's structure to some of the storytelling elements featured in popular podcasts The Moth and This American Life.
"The idea is that a single word can spark memory in somebody they may not even remember until they hear the word," Robbins explains. "And that creates these new stories within the context of the improvisation."
The upcoming show on March 18 is the third such event Robbins has organized since he put together the first Microbiography show back in 2011. The 45-year-old has been improvising for 24 years, and decades ago founded Spokane's improv house the Blue Door Theatre. He doesn't plan to organize future series events more than a few times a year, mainly to keep audiences and performers from burning out.
"It's fun to do this thing that [Pat and I] have been doing for so many years, I think differently than what a lot of people expect from improv," Robbins says. "It's a little more laid-back. I don't know if that sounds exciting, but it's not so in your face, like what most people expect from improvisation."
This time, Robbins' two longtime acquaintances — Bob Alexander, an amiable bartender at the Baby Bar downtown, and Tim Baughman — take to the mic.
"I sit close to Tim at parties because he always has some great stories," Robbins says, adding matter-of-factly: "I chose Tim because nobody knows who he is, but they should."
For the debut Microbiography show more than four years ago, local author and Spokesman-Review columnist Jim Kershner and his daughter, Kate — a former writer for Ellen DeGeneres' show — took the stage to share their personal stories for Robbins and Thomas (it was just the duo at first) to interpret. The second version, a few years later, featured stories told by local TV news personalities Kris Crocker and Robyn Nance.
"I always wanted to do the show with people who no one else knows of who are good storytellers, so I picked these two people," Robbins says of Microbiography III's storytellers, Alexander and Baughman. "Anyone who knows them and heard I wanted to do this with them are like, 'Oh yeah, they'll be great.'"
While Robbins and his comedy cohorts have been rehearsing together at each other's homes in the days leading up to the event, there's not a whole lot of preparation to be done from the perspective of the monologists.
Kershner remembers being terrified of having to wing it on stage. And when someone in the audience shouted out a suggestion — the word "rash" — he froze. Not a single memory or even remotely related tale were jogged in his mind. To his relief, Kate jumped in to save him.
"I'm a writer, and you know, we get to sit and polish and weigh every word," he recalls. "It turned out to be really fun, but I can't say that I'm going to launch my career as an improv comedian. It takes a certain kind of person, and Mark Robbins is exceptional at it."
On the other hand, Alexander, guest monologist for the upcoming event, isn't apprehensive about being on stage and on the spot. As a bartender for 20 years, he's had plenty of practice both telling stories and listening to strangers recount theirs.
In the event he is stumped by an audience prompt, he's also not worried. "I have a partner. The worst-case scenario is that I can sit there and stare and get really quiet. It's a tactic, right?"
His other idea to save himself from stage fright? "I was thinking I might try and get some ringers in the audience," he quips.
Regarding the roles of improvisers, Robbins believes that each of them brings something unique to the stage.
"Pat is shy, but he's a great physical comedian. You can watch him do nothing and he's really interesting. Mara has this sort of ironic presence on stage; she has this great, calm, entertaining presence. And I don't know what I bring... I mean, I think it's just the experience. I hope that I'm good at making sense of things. Keeping it grounded in reality." ♦
Microbiography III • Fri, March 18, at 8 pm • $12 • All-ages; recommended for 17+ • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com