Soon, another background coordinator, “Mike,” comes down to fill us in on the plot: the Commune has been together for a good long while, locally popular without really breaking out nationally. Now they’re in their mid-30s, their theater is losing its lease, and they may lose a cast member to Weekend Live, a weekly live NYC sketch comedy television show (“Completely fictional,” he grins). We’re the audiences for various performances throughout the narrative.
Not long after, we line up single file and march to a different small theater, a block away. We wait on the sidewalk for a few minutes. This being New York City, several people stop and ask what we’re in line for. (Nobody wants to miss anything.) We file in, past “video village” — the assemblage of monitors for watching playback of takes and scenes — in the lobby. Gillian Jacobs brushes past me as I go through the doorway. I try not to be one for celebrity idolatry and crushes on attractive television stars, but this nearly gives me a heart attack.
I’m initially pointed towards a seat in a front row, but then stopped, because another guy nearby is also wearing a mint-green button-up. I wind up at the end of a top row, basically in the dark. I will not be visible in this scene (which is fine), though later, an assistant director instructs me and a handful of other background players to raise our hands when Jacobs asks a question of the crowd (which will be answered by an an actor seated among us). This A.D., like most of the men on the crew, has a beard. Soon, Birbiglia, who also has a beard, bounds out, thanks us for coming, explains what’s going on, and we get started.
We then shoot a scene of what sounds like an anomaly — scripted improvisation. But there are clearly story things happening, in the interactions and beats between the players, and there are variations from take to take anyway, which helps keep our laughter genuine. (I also note that Birbiglia has the camera operator — who is shooting the entire sequence handheld, but on a Steadicam or Steadicam-like rig — shoot more towards the audience in the early takes, before we’re tired of the jokes.) After each good take, Birbiglia dashes out to the lobby to watch playback.
Adjustments are made; the actor in the audience is moved into a different position, so she doesn’t look a plant, and Birbiglia quietly chats with her during the rearrangement, giving notes. When he steps away, a makeup artist is there to touch him up. After a couple more takes, the 1st A.D. — who has the most impressive beard of all — announces they’ve got it and they’re moving on. Birbiglia gestures a thumbs-up at the actor in the crowd and mouths, “Great.” And he’s right; the later takes are better, more natural. A couple of takes in, I see something that, due to my seat and the placement of the door, only a few other background actors can: Ira Glass (who is executive producer of the film) appears in the doorway, then retreats to video village. He wisely does not enter the room; this room would fucking riot.
Over the course of the day, we get several variations of that scene, and then we’re rearranged (“Does everyone feel like they are in a significantly different place now?” asks the A.D., unintentional philosopher) and put in different clothes to shoot a handful of actual improvisations, suggested by the film’s improv coach, out in the audience. After six hours, they get what they need, send us off to eat free pizza (anyone who’s seen Sleepwalk With Me will be unsurprised by this bit of catering), and send us home. It’s a well-run set; we actually spend less time waiting around and doing nothing than I (and the book I brought) had anticipated. But it’s a relaxed, convivial atmosphere; they’re two weeks in and there are already affectionate nicknames and inside jokes.
Off to the side of the stage, there’s an upright piano, and a piano player who will, when it’s all cut together, occasionally accompany the troupe (we shoot a brief cutaway with him). But between takes, he plays a bit, to keep things light; he plays the piano outro from “Layla,” for example, so of course I talk Goodfellas with the guy next to me, like you do. Later, while the cast is hanging out as Birbiglia watches playback in the lobby, the piano player starts in on “Rocket Man,” and they gather around to sing along. Keegan-Michael Key knows every word. The piano player then segues into “Piano Man,” which I think he’s obligated to do, by law. This time, everyone knows every word. Midway though, Birbiglia returns to find his set in the midst of a singalong. He grins widely as his assistant director tells him they’re ready, and then — in mock fury, but unable to stop smiling — he bellows, “SHADDUP! WE’RE TRYIN’ TA MAKE A MOVIE!!”