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The True Believer
I remember when I first met Rob. It was – as he never tired of reminding me – at the last class I taught at the Homegrown Theater on November 25, 2001. I don’t remember much about that first meeting, but Rob did. He had a memory for details that would have been impressive if it hadn’t been so irritating. Weeks – or even months – after he had done a scene in my improv class, he would recall a character or a moment that I had long since forgotten and eagerly reincorporate that character into the storyline, even though it may have been forced or inappropriate. That didn’t matter to Rob. Nothing succeeded like success, and if it had worked before it would work again.
Rob was fascinated by improvisation, and he brought his highly technical mind (I understood he worked as a computer programmer) to the free-flowing, spontaneous world of improv. He diligently learned everything I taught in my class, and then, like a scientist testing a theorem, he would go about methodically applying my “theories” (or rules) into a scene. Sometimes he created very funny characters or scenes; other times, he would fall flat. On occasion, he would create brilliance.
He was maddening. He had a lot of talent, a lot of skill, but he also had a crying need for attention. He was a good-looking man, whose face was often a stoic mask of seeming indifference; yet beneath it was the constant neediness of a puppy craving attention. I would give notes on an improvised, 30-minute story we had just done, reviewing and commenting on everyone’s scenes. Invariably, Rob would ask me for more: more notes on his scene or character or even praise for a line of dialogue he had uttered (“Wasn’t that funny?” he would ask), like a small child seeking approval from a parent.
He sucked up all the notes and information I gave him, and would frequently repeated parts of them to class newcomers, either while they were waiting for class to begin, after class, or – sometimes annoyingly – during a workshop, adding a pointer or two after I had given some basic advice (if he got too carried away, I would say, “I’ll give the notes, Rob”).
It was an irritating habit – but how could you remain irritated at a guy who was so loyal, and so devoted to the beliefs of improv? I had to smile when a fellow improv teacher came up to me one day and said, “Who is this guy, Rob?”
“Why?” I asked.
“He keeps quoting you to me in class. When I give notes, he’ll offer comments like: ‘Tom always says…’”
Yet Rob, although methodical and almost plodding at times, frequently surprised me with his spontaneity. When I was teaching classes on a studio on 21st Street some years ago, Rob excused himself and stepped out of the room. I assumed he was going to the bathroom, but when he didn’t return for 45 minutes, I got concerned. Finally, he came back. After class, I asked him where he had been. He said he had seen a sign on a door outside our studio announcing an audition for some play. He had gone in and auditioned.
He was charmingly, irritatingly eccentric. One day, years ago, he saw me spontaneously give a free-class to a long-time student who was celebrating his birthday that night. A month later, when class was over and I was collecting money, he said to me, “It’s my birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” I said, slightly preoccupied with the counting of money.
I looked up. “Is there something else?” I asked.
“Don’t I get a free class for my birthday?”
“Of course,” I said, and it later became unofficial policy because Rob would tell people, “On your birthday, you get a free class.” (I later tried to explain to him that it was not a policy per se, just a spontaneous moment, but I don’t think Rob got it).
Although he seemed to be quite smart, he never tired of playing dumb characters with funny-sounding names or strange accents. He frequently played a dumb-as-dirt Southern boy named Cletus; or a friendly Pakistani man who was eager to please; or a tough Liverpool rocker. They all seemed to be different, but they were all various aspects of Rob, funny without knowing it, insecure, frustrating, talented.
He was often high (dominant) status in scenes, and I would tell him (and others), “One way to lower your status is to cry in the scene.” After he had learned that, he was soon weeping at the midpoint of every scene. “I wanted to change my status,” he would explain afterwards, even though he was one of the few people I knew who could cry in a high status way.
Rob was not always easy to work with. Frequently, I’d call for volunteers and he would be the first to leap up. No one else would join him. It wasn’t that he was a bad guy; he could just be very controlling in scenes. But the class rallied around him when one new student, a retired lawyer who was irritated by Rob’s quirks, threatened to “take him out” (and not on a date) after the two had done one too many scenes. Afterwards, I told the lawyer not to come back. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s acceptable to threaten students in my class.
The one time I felt as though I had let him down was when I had invited him to perform in my comedy jam, Sunday Night Improv. He worked with a veteran improviser, who was known for breaking rules and getting a laugh at the expense of his partner (for that reason, he no longer does the show). Rob did a scene with him and methodically applied everything he had learned over the years. The vet, however, was merciless, breaking reality for a laugh at Rob’s expense, making jokes about Rob’s Pakistani and Southern accents, his use of funny names, and generally using Rob as a soccer ball, kicking him all over the field.
Rob was devastated, a true believer who had seen his belief system rocked. After the show, I could see that he was upset, and I congratulated him on his work. The praise did little for him and he left in a funk. The next time I saw him, he wanted to talk with me. We spoke after class, and he was quite blunt. “I feel like you let me down,” he said. “When that guy was bouncing me around like a basketball, I thought you would stop it. I thought you would save me.”
I was embarrassed and also a little touched. For Rob, in his own simple, by-the-numbers way, understood and believed in one of the basic principles of improv: I make you look good and you make me look good. It explained a lot to me about him, about his eccentricities, about his passion for improv. He loved it for the creativity, but he also loved it for its support. It is the only art form that is communal, where you actually have somebody watching over you.
All these thoughts came to me suddenly, like a powerful wave, when I received an e-mail from another student who told me that Rob Frail had died on the morning of September 10. Rob had apparently had a heart attack about two weeks before, had surgery, and was recovering slowly. “One of Rob's concerns that he mentioned when I was with him,” wrote the student in the e-mail, “was when he could get back to improv class, because climbing stairs [to the second-floor studio where class was held] after heart surgery would have taken him a while to build up to.”
Although I knew little about his personal life, as an improv teacher, I felt like I knew him as a wayward son, or a frequent parishioner in the church of comedy.
Last winter, after over a decade of regular attendance, he disappeared from class, which I assumed was because he had finally grown tired of my approach and had left to seek something fresh. Then, a few months ago, he returned. He seemed a changed man; the neediness seemed to be gone; he was more accepting of criticism; he didn’t push as hard. It was as though he had come to terms with his limitations and just wanted to have a good time. I joked to a colleague who had known him from previous classes, “Maybe it’s not Rob, maybe it’s an alien from outer space who has assumed his identity.”
But, in the end, it was simply Rob being Rob: surprising, loyal, irritating, funny, dedicated, and a helluva improviser.
So long, Cletus.
September 11, 2013