Arts, On Campus

A Flea’s Life: Inside The ‘Bag’

Eighty freshmen auditioned for the improv comedy group My Mother’s Fleabag last semester-15 were called back, and only three were admitted to the troupe, which caps its size at 12 members. The auditioning process itself has long been held secret, with the only guidance offered to freshmen being that they shouldn’t come in prepared.

For this year’s graduating class of Fleabaggers-Lou Wilson, Ceara O’Sullivan, and Don Orr, all A&S ’14-there’s no imagining how they could have prepared for the last four years. The three, who describe each other as their closest friends at BC, will effectively end their careers with Fleabag this weekend in the O’Connell House. Saturday’s 10 p.m. performance will be their last “Big Show” together.
“Fleabag means family,” O’Sullivan said simply.

Although she was one of the lucky few to make the cut her freshman year, O’Sullivan said that after rounds of auditions and callbacks and after days of trying to be clever, witty, and funny, she was 100 percent positive that she hadn’t made it into the group four years ago. Orr, too, said that he had low expectations of getting into the troupe, but that he was glad he had given it the old college try.

Now on the other end of the audition process, Wilson, O’Sullivan, and Orr still aren’t so quick to give away the specifics of the process, but they will share the equation: chemistry.

“In our group of 12, no two of us are the same, and I don’t think any of our personalities match up-which is exactly what we want,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s like ‘blue doesn’t show up on blue.'”

Entering the group, and handling the pressure of creating characters on the spot, Wilson-who plans to pursue a professional career in comedy after graduation-quickly discovered that improv comedy had very unique expectations of performers.

“No matter what I do, no matter how I do it, no matter how big I go, I know the people I’m on stage with will support me and help me build a world in which the choices I’ve made are very real,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s concept of trust in improv performance became especially relevant at one performance several years ago when, moving about the stage quickly, Wilson split the O’Connell stage into three parts. The stage quickly became the Grand Canyon, as well as a host of other improv devices, and was incorporated into the performance. Playing off each other, the Fleabaggers worked the unlikely occurrence into the remainder of their routine.

“It’s like ‘make yourself look good by making your scene partner look better,” Wilson said. “So if everyone is doing that for everyone else-how can we fail?”

Each week, Fleabag meets for hours, practicing routines with characters and scenarios unlikely to ever be repeated in actual shows. The shows themselves are cast five minutes before the actual performance.
“People think we plan it out a lot more than we do,” Orr said.

“That’s not something we tell audiences, so I don’t think that’s something people know about us,” O’Sullivan said. “But I think that’s a huge part of what makes the shows so dynamic.”

The seniors also spend a considerable amount of time together outside of Fleabag rehearsals. Wilson and O’Sullivan are both members of ImprovBoston, a comedy troupe in Cambridge, and have a two-person improv show called Corkmagotton! In other words, they’re doing improv six nights a week-a decision Wilson describes as “the best kind of ignorance.”

Wilson has also claimed the title of “permanent guest” on Orr’s radio show at WZBC, cohosting a show called The MIT Fishermen Variety Show inspired by their freshman year auditions for Fleabag. Wilson and Orr performed in a scene together in which they decided to be fishermen instead of “geniuses” at MIT, and they were told that this scene is what helped the two of them get into Fleabag from the start.

While the three members work together and feed off each other’s energy, one thing’s for sure: they love to one-up each other.

Wilson: “I also work for BCPD.”

O’Sullivan: “I also work for a financial firm in Wellesley.”

Orr: “I work in a factory.”

O’Sullivan: “Yeah you work in a factory. That’s cool-I forgot about that.”

Wilson: “Yeah, Don, tell them more about factory life.”

O’Sullivan jumps in: “I do triathlons!”

Orr: “I screwed up my pinky, actually, because I dropped a titanium bar on my knuckles, and now I can’t get it any closer.”

O’Sullivan: “But he’ll be alright.”

The Fleabaggers will take any word, phrase, or question-and run with it. The random asides and spontaneous arguments allowed scenes to unfold, even off the stage.

“Guys, can we all uncross our legs?” Wilson asked seemingly out of nowhere, when The Scene was speaking with the three seniors. “I feel the need to join you all-like, oh you have your legs crossed? If six people in a room of seven people are crossing their legs, it’s a little weird.”

“This is what happens when you get in a room with people who do improv-we’ll just start up a fun conversation between the three of us and just dominate the room,” Orr added. “If you give us an open-ended question, we are just programmed to keep talking.”

As  O’Sullivan noted, however, there are times for joking around and laughing, and there are times to get serious.

“I think sometimes people think that because it’s comedy, it’s all fun and games,” she said.

The Fleabag experience and its quirky traditions are something that has been passed down through generations, giving each incoming class the chance to see just how much this group matters.

“We’re the oldest collegiate comedy group in the country, and that’s a big part of who we are-is doing things the way they’ve always been done,” she added.

While the structure of Fleabag’s shows has been altered considerably since then, certain things have remained the same-the group has never changed jerseys and will fight to the end to keep their venue, the O’Connell House. The seniors noted some difficulties with seating and space in the recent past, since the Student Programs Office has made efforts to limit the number of guests allowed into shows, and even suggested a change in venue. Fleabag’s big shows last spring and fall had three sold-out shows, leading them to add on another show, after seeing that these performances are in high demand from the student body.

“We’re putting on this free improv show because we want to make people laugh,” O’Sullivan said. “We’re a clean improv comedy group-that’s the other thing. Our humor’s not even inappropriate. It’s weird to feel like we’re the bad guys.”

Another problem with switching venues is that improv presents a unique situation, in which the performers are reliant on the audience members to be around the stage in order to foster participation and engage with students. The location is essential to the quality of the show, O’Sullivan explained, so places such as lecture halls are avoided.

“I would have nightmares performing in Robsham,” Orr added.

A fair bit is on the upswing for My Mother’s Fleabag, which has expanded its work to the greater Boston area over the last few years, placing second in the ImprovBoston College Comedy Beanpot tournament in February.
O’Sullivan and Orr, the two directors of this group this season, have also changed the actual form of the group’s comedy.

“These two [O’Sullivan and Orr] have really pushed the group outside its comfort zone, and, in my eyes, they’ve shown them what can be gained by trying new things,” Wilson said. “This semester alone we’ve pushed for longform, which is a style of improv we’ve never done before.”

However much might change for Fleabag-admittedly, it is not the exact same group that, when founded in 1980, performed three-hour variety routines with live bands-there’s a sense that Wilson, O’Sullivan, and Orr are part of something bigger than themselves. The more the group develops and grows, the more it inevitably is bound to its past.

“The reason why it’s called My Mother’s Fleabag is because ‘my mother’s fleabag’ is like an old motel that your mother owns and its falling apart at the seams,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s barely staying together, but you love it because it’s your mother’s and because it’s beloved by you.”

April 2, 2014