Reggie Watts & Tommy Smith’s Long Road Back to On the Boards

Tommy Smith & Reggie Watts’s “Transition,” this weekend at On the Boards

Tommy Smith and Reggie Watts don’t so much talk to you when they sit down to discuss their work as banter. No doubt this owes something to their process for creating Watts’s onstage material, which involves Watts calling Smith up at odd hours with whatever ideas have popped into his head, so the two can discuss, write them down, come back to them later, and maybe somehow turn them into something. That’s a lot of talking to do with one another, and so when you ask a question, you tend to get a response from both that trails off into completely different tangents, with plenty of corrections and addenda thrown in.

Monday evening, we were sitting in the dark lobby of On the Boards, where the pair are presenting their 2008 work Transition starting this Thursday, Oct. 15 (through Oct. 17; tickets $18), and Smith was telling me about their first major scripted theatre piece, which also took place at OtB. “We did a show called A Very Reggie Christmas in 2001. It was 38 percent amazing, and the other percentage was just jaw-droppingly bad,” Smith said. “The worst part was, we came up with this joke,” he paused, chuckling. “Actually, it wasn’t mine. It was Michael McQuilken’s…”

“It was Michael McQuilken!” Watts agreed before Smith, grinning at taking a rib at an old friend, stated, “I’m going to throw it right out there! It was Michael McQuilken’s!”

Then they took a moment to make sure I had the spelling of his name right.

“He had this joke, and we’re like, it’s not that funny, but maybe it can be when people do it onstage,” Smith continued. “It was called ‘State of the Arm,’ and essentially we didn’t want to buy prop guns. And so we were like, ‘What can we do?’ So we did this thing where we’d put our arm forward in a fist, and then put your other hand over the top of your arm, and you can cock your arm like that, and it’s a gun.”

“Like Space Ghost,” Watts elaborated.

“Yes, like Space Ghost,” said Smith. “So at some point we basically had these terrorists take over–and this was pre-9/11…”

“This was a video, too,” Watts pointed out.

“This was video, too,” Smith agreed, “and it was pre-9/11…well, earlier in the show there’s this ‘State of the Arm’ video, that was a ‘promo’ for it. And it shows a bunch of guys using the ‘State of the Arm,’ and then stock footage of a building blowing up. And then later on, these terrorists come onstage and they take over the show because Reggie’s an influential Seattle figure and they’re trying to…I don’t even remember what they were trying to get, something stupid. And I wrote that part…” He shook his head, laughing. “And so a bunch of guys come on doing the ‘State of the Arm’ thing, and you could just, like, hear coyotes in the minds of the audience.”

This conversation went on a while longer. At some point, I asked how they could have done a Christmas show in 2001 that took place before Sept. 11, at which point they determined it must have been in 2000, because it was definitely pre-9/11.

Playwright Tommy Smith

“You weren’t allowed to be funny with terrorist stuff again until, I think, what, it was like March 2005?” Smith asked.

“Yeah, yeah I think so,” Watts agreed, “I think that was the official date.”

“They lifted the embargo,” added Smith.

“It was the expiration date on tragedy,” said Watts with a dark chuckle.

So Smith and Watts have been collaborating in one way or another for years. A Gig Harbor native, Tommy Smith moved to Seattle to study theatre at the UW, after which he became a sketch writer and actor. In 2003, he moved to New York to take an acting job with Richard Foreman that turned out to be his last. (“I found myself in a six-foot bear costume with blood coming down from the fangs,” he explained, “and holding a sword, and my bear costume had a fleshy, three-foot bloody penis. And one day, as I was about to go onstage, I saw myself in a mirror and the switch went off. I’m like, that’s it, I’m done with this.”) He turned to playwriting, and is now a successful playwright in his own regard, in addition to his work writing for Watts.

Reggie Watts, for his part, came to Seattle from Montana in the mid-Nineties to study jazz vocals at Cornish. He went on to become best known around town as the stunningly talented vocalist for the hiphop/jazz/soul/funk/rock fusion outfit Maktub, in addition to various other projects. Around the age of 30, he made a dramatic career shift, moving to New York to pursue a career in comedy. Using a variety of vocal effects and techniques, Watts is now a well-respected member of the alt-comedy circuit in LA and New York, and has toured Europe with the likes of The Pharcyde, in addition to developing longer fare like Transition.

“The other weird thing about it,” Watts continued, in reference to the semi-disastrous A Very Reggie Christmas of 2001 2000, “is I remember Lane [Czaplinski, OtB’s artistic director] taking me for coffee at Ladro right there,” he said, pointing out the window to Caffe Ladro at Roy & Queen Anne, “and it was basically a general meeting, but he was talking to me about, ‘Why don’t you consider doing a solo show? Just think about that.’ But that was really the first time that put it in my head to think about doing solo stuff, and that was before I decided to move to New York and make the switch to comedy.”

In a sense, it’s all circular. Lane Czaplinski gave Watts the idea to go off and become a comedian, and nine years later the pair are finally back with a full-length show, Transition, a multimedia theatre piece originally commissioned by the TBA Festival in Portland, that’s all based on the idea, as Smith put it, of “something along the lines of what you do if you find out you’re in a simulation? And here are tactics, and how to get out of the simulation.”

Transition is one of a series of more scripted and developed theatre pieces Watts and Smith have put together in recent years, offering greater freedom and flexibility to expand beyond the limitations of the comedy or rock clubs Watts regularly performs at, while at the same time building on the same elements he uses in his stand-up work.

Another shot from “Transition”

“Essentially, in the beginning, we were just concerned about transitions,” Watts told me. “That’s why it was called Transition. The idea was, I think Tommy once said: ‘A theatre piece is only as good as its transitions.’ You lose everything in a bad transition. So mostly we just wanted to concentrate on creating a bunch of modules of disparate elements that were interesting unto themselves, but then solving the problem of getting between disparate elements in a fluid or jarring but very purposefully well-designed way. And I think that through solving those problems, [in] the actual content in between the transitions, meaning started to emerge.”

One of the other things bigger shows let the two do is to collaborate widely with other artists and performers whose work the two find interesting. Transition, for instance, features the contributions about 45 other artists, including musicians, dancers, actors, and video artists. Many of them have only brief bits in the show, but the massive jumble of different styles and approaches to the same core concepts is what makes the piece so engaging.

“We always talk about this idea of ‘refreshing the page,'” Smith explained. “So, after you stare at a page on a website for long enough, you just sort of naturally want to hit ‘click’ and refresh what you’re looking at. And that idea sort of bleeds over into the performance, where if you present the audience with a different style, it refreshes the page of their attention. Just switching the style from film to sketch to beat-box to dance to monologue, and it just was this way of re-engaging the viewer in what’s going on.”

When the show debuted at TBA last year (and it’s important to note it’s been further developed sense), it received mixed reviews because some critics saw it as too disparate and confused and not properly stitched together, as well as torn over whether it has a point to make or is primarily entertainment. Both Watts and Smith took issue with that while admitting some of the show had to be re-tooled, but standing by their contention that the humor is the art in the show.

“I think it’s entertaining, and I think that it’s the art of confusion,” Watts said. “I think that the idea of confusing and subverting expectation is kind of what we’re giggling about in the background, what we’re hoping is one of the affectations.”

“But it’s benevolent confusion,” added Smith, “and that’s, I think, one of the things we learned over the process of doing Transition in particular. At the beginning of it, we were interested in how duration of something can affect an audience, whether it’s way too short or way too long.”

“The problem with making an audience impatient,” he added, “is that they get impatient. So even if you intend to do it, it doesn’t matter because they’re still impatient. So what we’ve learned is, I think, that it’s benevolent confusion, and if we make them impatient, it’s only for a brief second, because you can lose an audience so quickly.”