“I’D RATHER BE
By JOHN DRAKE
Carole Bugge would rather scratch an itch than live with it. “People become improvisers because they have an itch that has not been scratched as an actor,” she says. “What’s great about improv is that it’s the perfect marriage of performing and writing.”
Call her the ultimate control freak, but don’t call Carole Bugge predictable. Whether it’s upper-crust British experts, Southern snobs, or wild-eyed Jeopardy game show contestants, the tall, red-headed improviser is as surprising as the art she practices as a performer at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam at the HomeGrown Theater on 100th Street and Broadway. For Bugge, improv is the best of both worlds: she can act but can also appear in little playlets that she helps create at the speed of thought.
Creation started for her in Ohio, “a repressed, Waspy state,” in which she spent her adolescence. Her parents were both teachers, but Carole’s early dreams were to become a cartoonist for Walt Disney. “I was writing from the time I could hold a pencil, cartooning. When I was five, I was certain I would work for Walt Disney. That was my ambition. When he died, I wept bitterly.”
She was also drawn to the anarchy and verbal humor of the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes. No wonder: even as a child she was performing wild routines in front of her family. “When I grew up, I was always improvising stuff. I loved comedy and had memorized routines by the Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, all of Monty Python. But at dinner I would just riff on. Everyone was having hysterics. I loved it.”
By the time she had finished college at Duke University in Durham, N.C., she had already written many short stories, and by 1977 had authored a one-act play. She came to New York to perform and in the process discovered improvisational theater.
“I heard that a group called the First Amendment was performing near the play I was appearing in, so I went down there. I loved it. The whole idea of improv was appealing. It liberated you from other people’s words. I think acting is hard, hard work and that improv is like playing.”
She took classes and performed with First Amendment for about a year, and then began studying at Chicago City Limits with its founder, the late George Todisco. “In my first experience in class I was all over the map,” she says. “I didn’t know the first thing about technique and introduced enough ideas in two minutes for five scenes.”
Once she was on stage, it was hard to get her off. She went on to seven years as part of the touring and then main companies of Chicago City Limits, creating characters, singing improvised songs, and crafting well-made scenes.
Along the way, she kept writing stories and began penning plays and musicals. Her first musical, a Gothic drama which combined Faustian ideas with a Jack the Ripper-style character, appeared three years ago; her second one, about Sherlock Holmes, was completed and publicly read recently; and her third was a version of The House of the Seven Gables. In 1997, St. Martin’s Press published her Sherlock Holmes novel, The Star of India.
She doesn’t think improv is an end in itself but finds it a wonderful tool. “Improvisation doesn’t go anywhere,” she notes. “It is completely disposable; a dead end. Improv does not translate into film or television. But it does help in writing. You become interested in narrative. While working on it, I’ve thought a lot about narrative problems.”