A four-headed boy. The comically cocky “cool” kid. Two bearded ladies named Crystal and Summer. The jittery first-year teacher, stuck teaching the “extra special ed” class.
And just two Northwestern alumni to play them all.
On Feb. 3, Communication ’06 graduates Matt Sax and John Dixon ran a dress rehearsal of their long-form improv project, Are Town, at Northwestern in T.I.’s Struble Theatre in preparation for their Tuesday off-Broadway debut in New York City. The show marks a reunion of sorts for Sax and Dixon, who lost touch for a year post leaving NU. “I was surprised we were able to jump back into it,” Dixon says. “I feel fortunate that it works so well.”
The two first collaborated during their freshman year on a 10-part sketch piece with Peter McNerney, a Communication ’05 graduate and former head of the Titanic Players improv troupe. “We had all these ideas, but it was such chaos because we’re both sort of self-indulgent,” Dixon says. “Matt is super aggressive, and I’m really laid back, which is what works in our improv, but only with a director. … Peter helps us make magic out of our opposites.”
The trio performed new long-form improv pieces for sold-out audiences each year, and they crafted the two-hour Are Town during the two players’ junior year at NU. Although Sax and Dixon are the show’s faces, McNerney plays an integral part in the process.
After graduation, Sax spent four months performing his one-man hip-hop musical Clay in New York. He also spent that time writing a screenplay and continuing with sketch comedy. Clay is currently being adapted for a Lincoln Center run. Talks are also in the works to bring the show to the big screen.
Meanwhile, Dixon has spent the past year “helping 4-year-olds imagine,” as a kindergarten teacher at the Roycemore School, a private institution located just steps west of NU’s campus. “Trying to keep up with kids requires the playfulness, lightheartedness, and patience that I’ve learned through improv,” Dixon says. He doesn’t have a teaching degree, but says he is “a pretty great baby sitter.” He nabbed the teaching gig through a long-term baby-sitting job with an NU professor. Now Dixon can cross a couple items of his life’s to-do list: “I always say the two things I want to do, simplified, are to make people laugh and to play with kids.”
The creativity and whimsy that Dixon has honed as a teacher and actor are showcased in Are Town. Sans props or costumes, the show interweaves irreverent scenarios into a tangle of fluttery high school crushes, a scandalous kidnapping and even a lethal secret vortex. Are Town creates a bevy of multilayered characters, plunked in sometimes subversive, always original settings. Whether situated at a streetside hot dog stand, an “Under the Sea Carnival”-themed prom, or the subterranean “extra special ed” class full of an otherworldly cast of circus freak-types, Sax, Dixon and McNerney have built a strange and captivating town that’s hard to forget.
McNerney says he plucked character names from particularly memorable high school peers. The off-kilter relationships derive from “what if’s” the trio bounced around during brainstorming sessions (such as “what would happen if a crazy racist father interacted with the school rebel?) and amount to winningly bizarre situations. In terms of characters, McNerney has a soft spot for the endearingly dweeby duo named Hamlet and Rocco. “I believe them the most,” he says. The sentiment is mutual from the vantage point of the stage. “I have a gentle relationship with Hamlet,” says Sax. “It feels lovely playing him.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Darce, an egotistical, swaggering buffoon with an arsenal of sidesplitting one-liners. “It’s fun to play a total asshole who ends up shattered and vulnerable, ” Dixon says. The two performers move seamlessly between numerous characters in each segment. Within a few moments, Dixon shifts from a melodious schoolgirl’s falsetto to a janitor’s crude hillbilly twang. Sax readily transforms his maniacal, sputtering “little devil” persona into a creepily lurking teacher named Condoleezza Cohen.
When the show ended, the three had a return flight planned to New York City. But when Midway canceled their flight due to Monday’s snowy weather, the trio improvised their own off-stage solution: They drove. “Who knows, maybe we’ll write our next show on the way there,” Dixon says.