Many William & Mary undergraduate and graduate students take advantage of the summer months to broaden their skills and gain experience in their chosen fields through internships. This story is the fifth in a series exploring some of the intriguing internships that students are engaged in this summer. — Ed.
It’s 20 minutes until show time at The Coalition Theater in Richmond, a comedy club mostly devoted to improv and whose motto is “Live Comedy, Dead Serious.”
Tonight is different, however. There will be no improvisation. Instead, performers with skits in various stages of completion – the stars of the club’s first-ever Sketch Mike Night – have all but filed in. That’s August Butler’s signal to spring into action.
Butler, M.A. ’14 and in the early stages of her doctoral dissertation in history at William & Mary, glides down the iron spiral staircase that separates her balcony perch from the stage below with a confidence that exudes extreme familiarity.
Someone hands her a sheet of paper. She scribbles a note or two after conferring with someone else. After several more stops, she scales the stairs back to the balcony.
“I’ve got real-life cues,” she exclaimed to Daphne David. As part of her internship with The Coalition – her unpaid internship – Butler is training newcomer David to run the light and sound boards.
“I was looking for a hobby, and I decided on improv,” said Butler, who also works three days a week in William & Mary’s History Writing Resources Center. “I’d done a little bit in junior high years ago and I really enjoyed it.
“I get to take a class for free and see shows for free. I love just being around a lot of very interesting people, getting to talk to them and seeing them in a place where they’re both having a lot of fun but also building community, being part of the arts scene in Richmond. People come from a lot of different backgrounds, have a lot of very different day jobs, yet come together for this one thing.”
She found The Coalition the modern way – she Googled “Improv Richmond.” The club, owned by W&M alumnus Matt Newman ’07, had a free preview night scheduled. Butler went, signed up for a couple of eight-week classes and began attending more shows.
“I enjoyed it so much I wanted to do something else with them,” she said. “I wanted to be there more and to give back.”
There’s nary any glamour in much of what she does, like posting fliers in the city. This night she has arrived at the theater about an hour before the performers, turned on the speakers and lights, started a slide show with advertising and waited for the cue to get things started.
In the meantime, she showed David and a pair of visitors equipment featuring a myriad of buttons and knobs though in an aside she whispered, “Only two of them really matter.”
There are seven acts this night. Butler brought them on stage with a short clip of music and after they finished ushered them off the stage by momentarily dousing the lights.
It’s a different feel from the normal night’s work. When there’s improv on the stage, there’s improv in the balcony. Some skits can run 20 minutes or so.
“I have to pay pretty close attention,” she said. “I start looking for a big laugh or a good place to cut the lights. I don’t usually have to do anything with what they do on stage. I just look for a place to cut them.”
Sitting high above the stage, in the dark and out of sight, does she still get nervous?
“Oh yeah, my heart sort of races,” she said. “Like last week, a bunch of things went wrong, tiny things I’m sure no one else noticed, but I was like, ‘Ahhhhh, I’m off my game.’ Usually it’s fine, and nobody notices but me.”
Where she’s spontaneous in Richmond, her life back at W&M is deliberate. Butler’s dissertation will examine Russian spiritualist communities located on the West Coast, from California and Oregon to British Columbia. These groups are being persecuted in Russia because they are not orthodox, so they have come to North America.
“They are really isolated, so I’m interested in how they pass on their cultural values to their children and maintain this real cultural identity,” she explained. “They are in the United States, but in reality, quite separate from it.”
She got the idea from a Russian history course she took two years ago in which the subject of these enclaves came up. Merging that with a long-held interest in children, she crafted the idea.
Given the subject matter, it’s understandable that Butler might seek some comic relief. But there was a deeply personal reason as well.
“I don’t know that I’d call myself ‘shy,’ but I have trouble in new situations or with new people,” she acknowledged. “I’m not usually super-willing to put myself out there and meet new people. I think since starting in improv, I’ve gotten a lot better. One of the things we learn is that whatever is given to you, you just react to it. So in conversation, I just react.”
Butler estimates she’ll need four to five years to complete her dissertation. Along the way, there should be a lot of laughs.