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On Fire

Anthropologists have studied the impact of fire and what a big deal cooking was for our evolving, energy-hungry brains. Maybe I should be talking about how cooking shows started way back then. But I’m blogging about improv, so shout out to my hairy historic hominids for making my dinner chewable. I’m eternally grateful even if you did slow roast mastodons into extinction. Instead, I make this claim. Four hundred million years ago, give or take, the theatrical stage had its origins in gatherings that occurred around those ancient campfires.

Dinner time back then would have been mighty quiet due to the fact language would not appear for another two or three hundred thousand years. I’m sure hominids made sounds with their bodies, but at ComedySportz® we are only interested in noises made by orifices above the neck, and groaning is only acceptable in response to a pun.

The emergence of language has been suggested as a trigger aligned with the ascension of homo sapiens. But what was ancient us doing with language? Schools were out of the questions with no English or history to study.

Well, imagine you are deep in some ancient forest and as evening approaches you build a campfire with your fellow sleepy sapiens. The night is a time when little productive work can be done. You must have the ingredients of the evening meal with you. Going out clubbing at night in those days meant something totally different to what it does now. It would have been a terrible idea. The nocturnal beasts you stumbled across, but could barely see, could easily ruin any chance you had a living a normal life. OK, maybe not so different to modern times. Anyway, best to huddle around the flames.

Sufficiently bright firelight represses the production of melatonin and so you will stay awake longer. Hot summer evenings give way to cooler nights releasing the pent-up energy of your tribe. Cold winter nights will have you cuddling closer. As the children fall asleep, the heavens reveal the journey of the moon and symbols sketched in the stars. The darkness of a silent night amplifies the strange supernatural sounds of the forest. Flickering flames focus on facial expressions as bodies still themselves. Talk turns from the daily mechanics of survival to the conversations that bind your tribe.

It’s impossible to confirm this is how the archaic evenings passed but it is possible to imagine what might have been the hot topics by looking at societies that live similar lifestyles now. It’s a bit of a stretch but still a fascinating portal into a more ancient and pragmatic time. A study of the !Kung bush people of northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana, by Polly W. Wiessner, looked at how tribal conversations changed as day turned to night. Her description of this twilight transition harkens back:

“In the late afternoon, families gathered at their own fires for the evening meal. After dinner and dark, the harsher mood of the day mellowed and people who were in the mood gathered around single fires to talk, make music, or dance. Some nights large groups convened and other nights smaller groups. The focus of conversation changed radically as economic concerns and social gripes were put aside. At this time 81% of lengthy conversations involving many people were devoted to stories; these stories were largely about known people and amusing, exciting, or endearing escapades. Storytellers did not praise heroes or moralize; advancing oneself in the moral hierarchy or demoting others was avoided, as was any form of self-promotion.”

Despite the !Kong being a different people in a different land sustaining a culture from a different time, I am struck at how similar this twilight transition mirrors a ComedySportz® match. Maybe the connection is strained but just how central is storytelling to binding us together?

I have mentioned before the quote from the book “Play”, Dr. Stuart Brown: “Storytelling has been identified as the unit of human understanding...Stories are a way of putting disparate pieces of information into a unified context.”

Stories are how we make order out of our experiences. We make sense of our daily lives through storytelling. The stories we retell of our clan are how we transmit our culture. As Wiessner summarizes: “Stories told by firelight put listeners on the same emotional wavelength, elicited understanding, trust, and sympathy, and built positive reputations for qualities like humor, congeniality, and innovation.”

At CSz we honor this ancient tradition by gathering at the twilight of Friday and Saturday nights. We have no camp, but we do have a playing field. We have no heat from an open flame, but we have the baking heat of the stage lights. And if you listen carefully you just might hear the referee echo the call to gather: “I'm warmed up, 'cause I'm under these lights, the players in the back are warmed up, but there's one group of folks who aren't warmed up...the loyal fans! How do we warm up loyal fans? We sing! All together!”

From that warmth, the stories flow.

“Yug” Winterbotham has been spit painting pictures of his hand on the cave walls of CSz Richmond since 2017.

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