With a show like One Man, the text is far from sacred. Improvisation is the name of the game—and the words on the page are just that: ink and paper. The flesh-and-blood actors spin just a few words into a buzzing, ad-libbed comedy bit onstage every night.
Sitting in rehearsal, as the actors and director Charlie Newell wrap up blocking for the final scene, this process unfolds before my eyes. Here’s the text they’re working, that “ink and paper” part I look up after the fact:
You little fucker.
(Stanley swings a punch at Francis who ducks and the punch contacts with Alfie, knocking him clean out.)
Are you alright, Alfie?
The total is two lines in the script, but this small bit gets teased out into a chaotic, hilarious, slapstick brawl over 90 minutes, with nearly the entire ensemble clustered onstage. It’s filled to the brim with accidental whacks and misdirected slaps.
Chris Bayes, One Man’s Associate Director and physical comedy expert, has returned today to incorporate physical comedy into the final act. The room buzzes with excitement. Everyone circles up to prepare with a chorus of vocalizations—stretching their legs as they warm up their voices with sighs and “aaahs.”
And here’s where the real skill of these actors becomes obvious: these professional, committed physical comedians can turn energy from these warm-up exercises into real work.
To prep for the “fight” scene to come, Chris Bayes introduces a “slap and clap” game. It’s a domino effect: one actor telegraphs slapping another, who claps and yells “OW!” to simulate a hit. This travels around the circle, slowly and stuttering at first, quickly gaining speed and rhythm.
This is hard—and this cast isn’t above warmly teasing one another when a cast member stutters, loses rhythm, or flat out throws up their hands in defeat. The trick, Chris says, is not overthinking it, letting your body respond, and feeling the rhythm rather than anticipating it.
The actors are primed and ready to block the final act’s brawl. But here, that doesn’t mean turning straight to the script.
In the text, there’s a single punch. Stanley misses Francis and lands one on Alfie.
Onstage, the hits and yells and outraged retaliations travel around the assembled crowd—nearly the entire cast is growling, scowling, and rubbing their faces at this point, before Alfie finally gets caught in the crosshairs and takes a wobbly tumble off the front of the shallow platform. The whole, worried crew gathers above him.
“Are you alright, Alfie?”
I’ll save the punchline for the show—and you’ll thank me later. Some bits are just too alive, too fresh to come across in “ink and paper.”
-Michaela Voit, Court Theatre Intern
Chicago actors, you too can train with the Christopher Bayes, commedia dell'arte and movement consultant for Court's produciton of One Man, Two Guvnors.
Description: Jump into your body...open like a little flower...rediscover your playful spirit and the simple pleasure and ferocious generosity of performance. In this workshop we pursue the clown together in all of its messy and hilarious beauty. Your relationship to all other forms of drama will be enriched by the openness and reckless abandon that the clown requires.
When: Monday, May 16, 12pm - 5pm
Where: Court Theatre Reherasal Hall, 5608 S Stony Island, Chicago
Instructor: Christopher Bayes
Registration and information: Email Virginia at or call (917) 533-1924.