‘WUSTL Live!’ guts out a great first performance

| Senior Cadenza Editor

We’re live in 3…2…1…

Just five minutes into the first performance of “WUSTL Live!” on Jan. 27, it felt like the wheels were about to fall off. The audience was in the dark and dead silent as they watched a clumsy cursor drag a projected QuickTime file into view. Someone backstage clicked play, and the audience cheered, but not for long. There was no audio. The audience let out an awkward laugh.

We watched a mouse drag the video off-screen so it could be tinkered with, revealing the standard Mac-in-space desktop background. The video was then brought back to cheers. Someone pressed play. Again, no audio. The audience went as dead silent as it was before the lights came on, and the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theater suddenly felt doubly quiet. It was an awkward silence, not exactly what the sketch group wanted to hear during its opening titles.

Clicked play again. No audio. Clicked play again. The video jumped off-screen. Clicked play again. Success! Two seconds of sound, they were in business. Failure! The titles screeched to a halt.

At that moment, “WUSTL Live!” was at its most exposed. The group’s skeleton was showing. They were running on a windowed QuickTime video on a MacBook, not even fullscreened. There was something endearing about it all. I was reminded that this whole show was being run by students (like me) with social lives and packed class schedules (like me). And yet there they were trying, over and over again, to bring scripted, live comedy to Washington University’s campus. Surprisingly, there was no yelling or shuffling backstage. I imagined that they were all huddled around the computer, jiggering the audio settings, plugging wires here and there. I could feel the audience pulling for them.

From behind the bleachers, someone yelled out, “This is just an extended gag!” It was junior Tim Brittain, the show’s creator and executive producer, cracking a joke in the middle of a crisis. This had people in stitches.

Born to be tradition

Brittain conceived of an SNL-type show at Wash. U. last summer while he was interning for Current TV, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt’s viewer-generated channel. Talking to his fellow writers on “The Rotten Tomatoes Show,” Brittain realized that live-broadcasted sketch comedy was a very manageable form-factor at a university, as a lot of the work could be done individually while students maneuvered through their exams and essays. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a platform for it at Wash. U. So the writers convinced him to start his own.

“‘WUSTL Live!’ fills a niche on campus, shown by the fact that we have [more than] 100 people involved right now, and our group is growing every day,” Brittain said. “There’s a lot of interest on campus for a thing like this.”

The concept was born—a monthly show that would take two weeks to write and two weeks to shoot and rehearse. Each show would consist of four live sketches and four pre-taped segments. And the whole thing would be recorded and broadcast unedited on WUTV a couple of days later.

The first step was getting WUSTL in the title, which necessitated acquiring the licensing rights from The Office of Public Affairs. For Brittain, getting the WUSTL brand was about more than name recognition. His goal was much more ambitious.

“I wanted ‘WUSTL Live!’ to become something that eventually became tradition,” Brittain said. “I think that having ‘WUSTL’ in the title made it a group that moved beyond individuals.”

The next step: assembling a crack comedy team. Senior Julia Mellon served as the group’s casting director. They auditioned a “huge-ass” amount of people, in Brittain’s words, and eventually whittled down the pool to nine performers, accompanied by 22 writers and countless individuals who provided technical support.

Trevor Mattea is one of those nine cast members. Mattea reckons he has spent 15 to 20 hours in front of the camera the past two weeks. He hadn’t done a lot of “acting and comedy stuff” before “WUSTL Live!” and was understandably nervous before the first performance, even though he wasn’t in any of the live sketches.

“I was actually in the audience,” Mattea said. “I wanted to see it firsthand, for one because I hadn’t actually seen the finished videos, and two, because I wanted to support the rest of the cast while they opened.”

And we’re back!

The mouse flitted across the screen, trying desperately to marry audio and video. As it turns out, a power outage in the projector room had deleted all of their rehearsal settings, forcing Brittain and company to adjust the settings manually, on the fly. Through it all, though, “WUSTL Live!” hung together, even though it was less calm backstage than I may have thought.

“Believe me, it was pretty hectic backstage because we wanted to put on a good show,” Brittain said. “But it was a calm sort of hectic. Everyone was acting quickly but coolly.”

Suddenly, the opening credits were rolling, and the crowd roared to life. “WUSTL Live!” pulled out of its tailspin and put on a very funny show. By the end of the night, the sound and video weren’t the only things in sync. The cast showed real chemistry and comedic timing in both their live performances and pre-taped segments. The writing was sharp, and the video-editing was perfect. What started off awkwardly ended hilariously. Brittain came out to a cheering crowd to take his final bow and wished to see everyone at the next show on Mar. 3.

For more information and clips from their premiere, visit wulive.com.

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