Improv: The Formative Years (1968-72)

By Tom Soter

Before I improvised on stage, I improvised with my friends using the microphone of a home tape recorder and then the lense of a super-8 film camera.

We were teenagers and made shows for the ACD tape recorder network and movies for Apar Films.

By Tom Soter

Before I improvised on stage, I improvised with my friends using the microphone of a home tape recorder and then the lense of a super-8 film camera.

We were teenagers and made shows for the ACD tape recorder network and movies for Apar Films.

ACD stood for nothing. That’s not quite true. The acronym stood for nothing, but the TR (as in tape recorder) network stood for something: entertainment, inspired lunacy, and bizarre 15-minute series, most with regular characters and intriguing monikers: WEST THAT WASN'T, GUN FOR HENRY, and, my favorite (for the title if nothing else), PLANET OF THE NUNS.
ACD: That old gang of mine: early improv stars (left to right) Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, Tom Soter, and Christian Doherty, c. 1971.That old gang of mine: early improv stars (left to right) Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, Tom Soter, and Christian Doherty, c. 1971.

Most of these shows boasted a battery of writers, with such names as Fortuna Apar, Adolph Etler, and, my favorite (for the absurdity if nothing else) Look At Yourself. Of course, it was patently absurd that anyone could write such wild concoctions – they were obviously improvised efforts, mostly from the feverish brain of Christian Doherty.

If the acronym ACD stood for anything it could have been All Christian Doherty. Although he had collaborators – school chums Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, and myself – Doherty was the chef who made all the elements work, the crazy man-of-a-thousand-plots-and-characters, some of them original, others a hodgepodge of ideas that he had picked up from movies, books, and television shows he had just seen and which he would then transform into something quite special. Often, when I would be working with him on a GUN FOR HENRY or a TALES OF MYSTERY, the wild story twists would make no sense to me – until days (or even years) later when I would happen on the show or movie or book that had inspired him.
Portrait of a Young Improvisor: Soter in'72.Portrait of a Young Improvisor: Soter in'72.

But it wasn’t all about story-swiping: it was Doherty’s unique take on life. Who but Doherty could have dreamed up a character called “The Invisible Nun,” who needs to go to an invisibility refueling station to retain her powers? And he inspired us – Sinclair (or Siny, as we called him) created such unforgettable characters as THE FANATIC, the DRAFT-DODGER, and the terribly inept switchblade-toting mugger Jack Rosen (I played his brother Sam on three different series: STREET KID, MUGGER, and THE FISHBOYS); while Saly was the man behind the intricately plotted sci-fi series VOYAGE TO THE STARS and also the voices of countless British and German villains planning to take over the world (or at least the corner store); and I took some pride in the ridiculously German-accented nun Hedwig Zorb (in PLANET OF THE NUNS and THE SISTER; she was actually based on a real nun at high school who would give us “zero for the day” and make us sit on our hands if we were caught talking out of turn).

Doherty, on reluctantly listening to one of his old shows recently, said to me: “It’s just kids. We were little kids.” Yes, we were only 12 when we started creating ACD shows in 1968 as an after-school diversion, and not much older when ACD stopped operations in 1972/73 (at about the time our tape-recorders were replaced with Super-8 movie cameras – but that’s another story). In 1968, when we began ACD, we were concerned not as much with girls as with guns and death and the obsessive quest for identity that made The Prisoner TV series the obsessive touchstone of the better ACD efforts.

Ah, youth!

The stories are often very violent, silly, and sometimes incomprehensible. But some of them, thanks mostly to Doherty’s nutty genius, have touches of brilliance that make me proud of our misspent childhood. And those that are not quite so brilliant may at least give you a chuckle or two. For samples and more, http://elysianfields.us/

After making dozens (or was it hundreds?) of TR shows, Alan Saly, Tom Sinclair, and I gathered in front of Christian Doherty's super-8 camera to make action movies under the name Apar Films. Usually, the plots were simple: Saly and Sinclair would chase Soter (WISHING YOU WERE DEAD), or Soter and Sinclair would chase Saly (THE THEFT OF REASON), or Saly and Soter would chase Sinclair (PRESSURE POINT). Then there was the occasional innovation: Sinclair without Saly chasing Soter (GUN FOR HENRY), or even Doherty, as actor and director, chasing Soter (THIS WILL REALLY KILL YOU and MAKE A WISH).

Some could see the movies as metaphors for life. Others might call them exercises in action-packed illogic. I think they were a good way to get some exercise.

Click here for video of "The Chase," the earliest surviving Tom Soter action video, culled from WISHING YOU WERE DEAD:

WISHING YOU WERE DEAD
Directed by Christian Doherty. Filmed: 1971
With Alan Saly, Tom Soter, Tom Sinclair.
The first of the Henry Sorelli movies has a split personality: the first two-thirds is one of Doherty's first and most inspired chases as a man in a brown blazer (Tom Soter) is pursued by a black man dressed in white (Tom Sinclair) and a white man dressed in black (Alan Saly) over hills, by the water, up steps, and up against a wall. It is witty and simple, with a satisfying shocker of an ending. The problem is that it doesn't end there: the last third introduces Henry Sorelli, a top spy, who is asked to investigate the events of the first part of the film. The problem is that the actors from the first two-thirds all play different characters in the last third. Saly, the villain, is now Sorelli, the hero; Soter, the victim, is now John Bastard, the villain (and also a hit man); and Sinclair, the villain, seems to play both hero and villain. Only completists need watch the entire film; the rest of us can stick with the brilliant chase sequence that demonstrates Doherty's early skills (it is even more impressive when you realize it was all cut in-camera).

Click here for PRESSURE POINT:

PRESSURE POINT
Directed by Christian Doherty. Filmed: 1973
With Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, Tom Soter, Leslie Parker, and Evan Jones as the purse-snatcher
Designed as a film to showcase New York City, the movie is part-documentary collage and part-Doherty fantasy vision of a world in which two white racists (Alan Saly, Tom Soter) brutally assault a black man (Tom Sinclair) and a man (Evan Jones) is executed for snatching a purse. Visually, one of the director’s most accomplishd pieces, with superb editing. This is among the last of the 22 short movies Doherty directed in the early 1970s.