I've been a big fan of the Louisville Improvisors for many years, whether through their shows, classes or their annual improv festival "Improvapalooza", so I was anxious to catch up with them find out more about their latest incarnation as the Narcotic Farmers.
I caught up with them as they were wrapping up a short tour of minimum-security facilities throughout Kentucky and Tennessee, called the "Fresh From The Can" tour. We had a freewheeling discussion at a little German Restaurant out on Dixie Highway where we split the Schnitzel and drank our weight in Spaten. Here goes part one of our conversation.
Ted Benson: What is the Narcotic Farmers?
Alec Volz: That's a good question Ted, maybe Chris can answer that better than I can.
Chris Anger: Thanks Alec, I'll try. The Narcotic Farmers grew out of the Narcotic Farm, a famous drug facility in Lexington, Kentucky. A lot of famous jazz musicians ended up there, like Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Jackie McLean. So they had always had a great jazz band. Well one day someone brought in a copy of Viola Spolin’s book Improvisation for the Theater, so they started using it with the inmates as a tool to help them with role playing and learning how to play again. Eventually, the way it always happens with improv, after a couple of classes they decided to start their own group. Hence the Narcotic Farmers are born. This would probably be in the 50s.
AV: I should also say that they were also doing various other experiments with the inmates, including giving them LSD as a therapeutic tool, to varying degrees of success. And one day they decided to combine them both.
CA: Right. So, the first few Narcotic Farmers show were actually done under the influence of LSD. Which they filmed by the way.
AV: They were hard to watch. People would wander off in the middle of a scene; changes characters every line, in mid sentence become totally mute or just start crying hysterically for no reason.
CA: Not unlike some of our rehearsals...
AV: It was compelling, but I wouldn't call it comedy.
CA: It was like watching a cross between the Living Theatre and an Inuit Birthing Ceremony.
AV: Gradually, they evolved and grew into what was more recognizable as a comedy improv group. Doing more of a 'Whose Line is it Anyway' kind of show.
CA: If you’re doped up on methadone or Thorazine it's better to focus on short form games.
TB: Why the Narcotic Farmers?
AV: When you've been working together as long as we have (Anger and Volz have been working together for 12 years) it's important to mix it up a little.
CA: Instead of doing the same old thing.
AV: With the same old people.
CA: Over and over again.
AV: Day after day after day.
CA: Year after year after year.
AV: Because you don't know any better.
CA: Or you just don't care any more.
AV: What was the question?
TB: Is there a personal connection to the Narcotic farmers?
CA: There is for me. My Uncle Sid did time there. My father’s brother. He was a comic who never quite made it. He spent a lot of time on the road, where he also picked up a heroin habit that he never quite shook. He was the Artistic Director of the Farmers when Peter Lorre was in the group.
TB: Is he still alive?
CA: No, sadly he's dead.
TB: If you don't mind, was it drugs?
CA: No, he choked on a balloon animal and died.
TB: That is sad.
CA: But, at least he was onstage when it happened.
TB: Who are the Narcotic farmers today?
AV: The Narcotic Farmers today are : Scott Field from Improv Nashville and Music City Improv, Jill Mothershed from Music City Improv, and of course Chris Anger, Todd "Magic Fingers" Hildreth and I from Louisville Improvisors.
TB: How did this particular configuration of the group get together?
CA: That's an excellent question Ted, maybe Alec can answer that better than I can.
AV: Thanks Chris, I'll try. Chris ran into Scott at a railroad/ reunion fundraiser for families of former inmates at the Farm.
CA: And we knew Scott and Jill because we've already played with them at "Improvapalooza" and at our "Irish Hill Improv and History Festival", although we didn't know about our shared history with the Narcotic Farmers until last year. Besides, we are always looking for a reason to get together.
AV: So, they started talking and it turns out that Scott is really into genealogy and had been doing a lot of research about the group, Scott is actually the group historian so if I'm a little fuzzy on some of the details please forgive me, one thing leads to another and the Narcotic Farmers are reborn.
CA: Needless to say we're very excited about the shows coming up this weekend.
AV: Yes we are. We've got 2 shows coming up, on Friday it will be the Louisville Improvisors with the New Improvisors, which is the debut performance of the latest group of graduates from the Louisville Improvisors Training Center.
AV: Saturday night will be the return of the Narcotic Farmers!
LOUISVILLE IMPROVISORS/ NARCOTIC FARMERS perform Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m. each evening at The Bard's Town, 1801 Bardstown Road. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door. For more information call (502) 749-5275 or go to http://louisvilleimprov.com/
INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.