Apollo 12: Boldly Going Where No Improv Team Has Gone Before
By Shane Shellenbarger Longform improv troupes come in
many sizes, formats, and configurations. At The Torch Theatre the performers vary widely in the way they entertain and inform their audiences. Mail Order Bride consists of five women who challenge the conventions and stereotypes of the human condition, often with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. Dangerville makes use of music and melodrama. Die, Puppet, Die employs puppets and performers, doing something akin to Avenue Q, sans the music. And then there is Apollo 12. Apollo 12 uses science and science fiction, math and mythology, history and fantasy, with just a soupçon of popular culture sprinkled throughout their performances. This was evident as I prepared to interview them and their conversation ping-ponged from Burt Ward, Conan O’Brien, Jonny Carson, Jay Leno, Jack Parr, to immortality, the invention of photography, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Earl Grey: Hot!, throat infections, ST:TNG, restrooms and replicators.
The group grew out of the Phoenix franchise of Comedy Sportz (short-form comedy improv) in 1998 with various performers coming and going between 1998 and 2002. Mack Duncan of Apollo 12 was one of the founding members of Comedy Sportz in Phoenix. It was around 2000 when a rift developed amongst the national groups and some franchisees remained Comedy Sportz while others became National Comedy Theatre. During the first year after the break, the Phoenix franchise of about thirty performers was on good terms with both CS and NCT, using both of their names. Unfortunately, franchise fees began to increase, the performers weren’t being paid, and they were dissatisfied with the constraints of the short-form format, so it was decided
that the troupe of now approximately ten people would part amicably with both franchise groups and book their own shows and venues. At that time, they needed a name for the group and Duncan chose Ninja Pirates. The group experimented with sketch comedy, variations on short-form improv games, and they weren’t finding the fulfillment they were seeking. They had hit a wall and they needed a new direction. On November 14th, 1969, NASA launched Apollo 12 from Kennedy Space Center. Thirty-six-and-one-half seconds after lift-off, the spacecraft experienced a lightning strike which carried to the Earth along the ionized rocket plume, causing the shutdown of three fuel cells. A similar incident had happened during training and between Mission Control and the astronauts on-board Apollo 12, the solution was recognized and implemented. During 2002’s experimental show period, the newly named, Ninja Pirates recognized their need for a spark, an implementation of a new format and a new name. Mack Duncan turned to Bill Binder for ideas. The first thing they needed was a new name. Independently, Duncan and Binder threw the name Apollo 12 into the hat, the troupe liked and accepted that name. Sometime later, Binder invited the troupe to watch “From the Earth to the Moon” a twelve part HBO production created by Tom Hanks, detailing the Apollo missions, beginning with John Kennedy’s 1961 call to reach the moon within the decade through to the conclusion of the Apollo program with the flight of Apollo 17 in 1973. The troupe was taken by the fun and irreverence of the Apollo 12 mission in general and the astronauts specifically. The attitude of the people in America toward the Apollo 12 mission seemed to be one of “been there, done that,” so the astronauts got away with things they never would have had they been the first lunar landing mission: Several checklists were modified by the back-up ground crew to include miniature photos of Playboy centerfolds, a three-quarters by half an inch ceramic tile (Moon Museum) containing the art of five artists was smuggled aboard, and Charles “Pete” Conrad quipped, “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” The troupe of improv performers had a new name and an irreverent attitude, they just needed a performance style to match.
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The transition from short-form games
to long-form scene work began by accident when the troupe performed an entire set consisting of scenes, but no games. That was during 2002. They realized after the fact that they had spontaneously performed something new without prior agreement, almost as if they had subconsciously decided upon this unexplored path. They also discovered their evolution was more artistically satisfying. Around the same time, Bill Binder was traveling each week to long-form classes at Improv Olympics West (I.O. West) in Los Angeles. During the weekly practice of Apollo 12, Binder would teach the troupe what he had learned during the weekend. Over the next year, they began to change their style of performance, which caused several members to amicably leave the troupe. By 2003, Apollo 12 performed at the Second Annual Phoenix Improv Festival, doing a set which very closely resembles the format they perform today. By 2008, the troupe had dwindled
down to four original members when it was decided to recruit new players. Several people were invited (by mutual consent of existing Apollo 12 members) to play with the troupe for a month, Arturo Ruiz among them. Others drifted off, Ruiz remained. The current membership stands at five: Bill Binder, Mack Duncan, Jon Jahrmarkt, Rick Larsen, and Arturo Ruiz. Apollo 12 has certainly paid their
• Make Steampunk Accessories • Do Kumihimo & Kanzashi • Draft an Underbust Corset Pattern • Do Beading & Embroidery • Dye & Distress Fabric • Block a Hat & Make a Hat Pin • Fit a Victorian Bodice • Make a Leather Holster & Pouch • Fight with a Cane or Parasol • Create (and Stay in) a Character • Make & Transport Large Props • Get into Professional Costuming • Run a Successful Masquerade • Fit a Pattern to Cup Size • Do Character Make-up • Use Fosshape & Wonderfl ex • Style Wigs & Support Headdresses
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dues. They survived an aborted attempt to open a performance space in Tempe which turned into a money pit. They survived open auditions which added ten members to their troupe on the whim of a former leader when they were still associated with Comedy Sportz. They grew and evolved from the contributions made by members who attended classes in Los Angeles and Chicago, by former member, Greg Jarvis, and his stint performing improv aboard a Disney cruise ship, and finally by the passion of the troupe members themselves. They perform at The Torch Theatre (which they helped refurbish over the past year) on Central Avenue, South of Camelback Road and at The Trunk Space on Grand Avenue, North of Roosevelt. They have pushed themselves to the edge of their abilities and beyond.
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CoN Volume 22 Issue 2
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