Late one night in a bar in Vancouver, British Columbia, 30 years ago, Martty Zeller watched two men eviscerate a cow with a chainsaw. One guy wheeled the heifer onto the stage, the other raised the saw high and went in with gusto.
But there was no blood, because it was all invisible. There was no cow, and no chainsaw, only two actors so immersed in their improv act that the audience could see the spotted bovine and hear the Vrrooom! of the weapon’s motor.
Zeller, a Homer lawyer in Vancouver for a conference, was hooked.
“I said, ‘Oh man, I wanna do that,’” he says.
And the first seeds of Homer’s own improv troupe, Fresh Produce, were sewn.
Improv, for the unacquainted, is non-scripted acting — people go out on stage and make it up as they go along. On Sept. 26, the four members of Fresh Produce 2.0 debuted their act in a show at the Art Barn. The group, made up of Zeller, Peter Kaufmann, Tara Schmidt and PeggyEllen Kleinleder, includes all ages — from Zeller’s 75 to Schmidt’s 25 — and varying degrees of improv experience. Though its name might lead one to believe that this is the group’s second incarnation, Zeller says it’s at least the fifth.
Zeller moved to Homer in 1971, when he was 31. He started Fresh Produce in 1985 after heading from Vancouver to Seattle, where he took improv classes and then invited his teacher up to Homer to do a workshop. The teacher came for a few days and when he left, Zeller took over.
He’s not sure where the group’s name came from — maybe a sign they passed on the road.
The first Fresh Produce had 14 members who traveled around Alaska in a bus, performing at benefits with author and radio personality Tom Bodett and local musician Johnny B. The troupe’s numbers have fluctuated over the years as people came to town and left, found space in their lives and filled it up with other obligations.
Last year’s troupe included members of five generations, but Homer Flex senior Johnny Hamilton decided to take a break to focus on school this year.
Fresh Produce practices twice a week when all the members are in town. On stage, they take random suggestions from the audience to create the characters and set the scene. In one particularly funny skit, the actors ask an audience member to talk about what they did that day, and then they recreate the events onstage. On Sept. 26, that meant eating several imaginary hamburgers and competing in a turkey shoot against Annie Oakley herself.
In another skit, the actors are members of a “panel of experts” in a field determined by the audience. Theater-goers ask them questions, and the panelists answer in the personas they’ve adopted. On Sept. 26, the panel’s topic was the female brain.
Zeller says that improv was helpful in his law career, from which he retired almost two decades ago; it taught him to think on his feet, be adaptable, pay attention to changes in other people’s behavior.
But it’s been even more useful in his current field: mental health.
Research has demonstrated that using the tools of improv can help people struggling to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. Rather than showing them the flaws in their connection with reality, improv is about going along with what your stage partner suggests — about saying “yes,” accepting their vision.
At 75, Zeller works part-time as a mediator and mental health counselor. He says that improv is therapeutic even for those who don’t have to deal with disconnect from reality. It can help people find confidence and gain social skills.
“It’s play, it’s communication, it’s listening, and it’s collaborative. … It’s a way for people to connect, all the exercises are connective. You’re all taking the same risks,” he says.
Each year since the mid-1990s, Zeller has done a residency at Homer Flex High School. Over several weeks, the students learn the basics of improv through workshops. At the end of the program, they go into elementary and middle schools and teach kids what they’ve learned.
It’s not always easy for students to shed their self-consciousness and dive into a scene, he says.
“It’s risky to make a mistakes in front of people you don’t know, you’re not familiar with, you may not feel safe with,” he says. “But it’s all graduated. You start with the simplest: passing a sound, like ‘Whoosh!’ ‘Bloop!’ You start on that level and it feels silly but then after a while everyone’s being silly.”
He loves watching the student performances at the end of the residency, he says, because it can be a rare opportunity for positive recognition for teens with difficult lives.
“Some of these kids will never get the attention of being on stage and being acknowledged and being laughed at because they’re being funny, being successful,” he says.
That’s one thing Zeller cares a lot about: sharing the spotlight. Having been in Homer almost 45 years, he’s seen the arts in town blossom. He’s impressed by the experimental plays Pier One Theatre puts on, by all the galleries and events like the Suttons’ Doc Fest at Homer Theatre that require a supreme effort by their creators to make something beautiful for the community.
But, he says, there are many workers here, including teachers and health care providers, who don’t get the satisfaction of spotlights and thundering applause.
“There’s a lot of — I don’t call them heroes because that’s an overused term — but people who are right on the front lines and are engaged in providing direct service and stuff like that. So I would like to see more acknowledgement of that, more focus on them,” he says.
Zeller grew up in Newark, N.J., and he’s lived a lot of places, including Fairbanks, Anchorage and Spokane, Wash., where he co-founded an improv theater. But his two kids grew up in Homer, and he says this is home now.
“This is my place and I carry with me the sense of the openness and the wildness of the outside, the mountains and oceans and forests. That’s become who I am … and when that’s not there I’m not home,” he says. “And it’s a dynamic, changing place, even with all of us fogies slowing down and creaking and using sticks. It’s part of the natural progression.”
At the Art Barn on East End Road and at Homer Flex, improv — dynamic, open, wild, a sea of possibilities itself — helps to keep the town on its toes.
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.