COOL SHIT TO DO IN CHICAGO: ROXY BELLOWS
"If Liza Minelli and Don Rickles had a love child, she would be Roxy."
If you’ve never been to a Roxy Bellows show, you absolutely must do yourself the favor.
Pat Musker—math teacher by day, comedic actress Roxy Bellows by night—is a Chicago treasure. She’s been performing on the Chicago stage for over 20 years. At every show she single-handedly performs at least two hours of completely hysterical, completely improvised, songs and comedy.
Roxy emerges on stage with the grace, glamour and command of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (more accurately, Norma Desmond played by Carol Burnett), then descends upon the audience, learning names and life stories of spectators, riffing off the details they provide, occasionally inviting audience members to the stage, improvising songs with or about them. Blues numbers, Broadway musicals, gospels— you name it, she does it. Her comedic timing is impeccable. Her laser-wit is unmatched. And the way she weaves it all together is Minerva-level masterful. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to interview Pat Musker.
How long have you been playing stages in Chicago – and on which stages have you performed?
Since 1984: Improv Institute, Noble Fool Theater, Donny's Skybox, Acorn Theater, Pheasant Run, Uptown Underground, Green Mill, WIP Theater, The Lincoln Lodge, The Dunes Resort . . .
How did the character of Roxy come to be?
I was an understudy for one night, for an improv show called Diva-matic--circa 2000?? I was pretty brassy with the pianist at the time because I was so nervous and didn't know what I was doing. The pianist didn't appreciate it. My family and friends really enjoyed the performance and thought it went over well. A couple of years later when the theater company I was with opened a new space, complete with a cabaret, I was encouraged to do some musical improv. Roxy seemed like a saucy name and Bellows, it was the name I saw on a bottle of vodka. I thought it fit the character quite well.
How would you describe a Roxy experience?
Fun, entertaining, expect the unexpected, "If Liza Minelli and Don Rickles had a love child, she would be Roxy".
What’s your favorite thing about performing as Roxy?
Having audience members get out of their comfort zone is always rewarding. I know they're often nervous and don't want to sing, so when they do, I'm overjoyed. I even had a woman tell me it was a life changing experience!
Who are some other characters you’re experimenting with?
I have a couple of characters I've incorporated into a Roxy show once in a while. The first is Dorothy Page. Imagine Elaine Stritch. I've also got a wise Professor who's in love with Roxy.
Who or what are some influences on your work?
Carol Burnett, Tracey Ullman.
Can you tell us a little about your upbringing and training in the theater?
I was raised on the Northwest side and attended Catholic school for 12 years. I always wanted to be a teacher so I went to college and got my Bachelor's in education. I later went back and got a Master's in math education. I started teaching at a Catholic school in 1980.
My professional training is all improv. I was in one play in high school. I auditioned at the behest of my good friend. She just wanted me to stay after school with her while she auditioned. I was cast in the play and I really enjoyed it. The drama teacher suggested I take classes at Second City. I signed up right after high school, but I really felt out of my element. My dad insisted on driving me to and from the theater (which was really okay with me). Most of the people in the class were older than me (17 years old) and so the life experience they brought to their scenes was also uncomfortable for me. And yet, sometimes I'd think to myself, you're not following the guidelines for scene.
Several years later a friend with whom I had been in the high school play wanted to take some improv classes so I joined him. I attended Players Workshop in 1982. From there, someone knew someone who wanted to start an improv group and asked me if I’d like to join. Our first shows, in 1983, were done in a church basement for about 10 people. Eventually we opened up our own theater called the Improv Institute on Belmont. It was around for 10 fun-filled years.
What is the role of improv in your work?
I began taking improv classes in 1982. In 1984, I was a founding member of The Improv Institute and haven't stopped improvising since. I need to think on my feet while I'm interviewing audience members and then see if I can spin that interview into an improvised song.
I’m assuming most of the Roxy show is improv, but do you ever write material for the shows?
I don't write material for the show.
Can you say something about the relationship between writing and performance for you?
I'm terrified of writing. I come from a family of writers, but I don't feel comfortable with it.
Do you ever get nervous before a performance?
Yes. I do feel the weight of responsibility for someone's "fun" night out.
What is your greatest satisfaction in performing?
A positive reaction from the audience. People coming back time and again to see a show.
Keeping both sides of my brain working. Wondering if what I'm doing and saying is entertaining and thinking of the logistics of what to do next - continue on the same path or abort and change course.
How do you juggle it all – being no doubt, an ace school teacher and an amazing stage performer?
My biggest fear is getting sick for a Roxy show. I don't have an understudy so I start pounding vitamin C a week or so before a show. I then try to get some sleep and hope for the best.
What would you say is the significance of the arts in this current historical moment or at any moment?
I think the arts are vital now and throughout history. The importance of shining a light on the absurdities we encounter. Being the "fool" and being allowed to say what others are afraid to say. I think the arts are also important throughout history to give people a form of escapism. I will say, that during this political climate, I tend to stay away from commenting on politics. We are all so divided I want to bring people together rather than alienate anyone.
What’s the story on your pianist?
I worked with Larry Rothbard since 2003. Sadly he unexpectedly passed away last year. Sarah Porretta had been my "back-up" pianist during the Larry years and has now agreed to step into the role of my primary pianist. The challenge now is to find a couple of back-ups. I have a couple of pianists who've recently come to see the show and are interested in filling that role. It takes a while to get that perfect fit. I'm not a musician so I can tell a pianist what I don't like, but it's hard for me to verbalize what does work. Luckily Sarah is willing to work with the back-ups. And maybe, just maybe, we'll actually have a couple of rehearsals!
What advice do you have for beginner performers?
I'm currently directing the variety show at school. A few days ago one of the kids dropped out. He said he thought he would be too nervous. I had to remind him that everyone is nervous, but everyone also wants you to succeed, so go for it. You won't regret it.
For more information on Roxy Bellows or to keep an eye out for upcoming shows, visit http://roxybellows.com/.