Fifteen guys are standing around in T-shirts and gym shorts on the third floor of Houston Hall — in line to show off who has the best booty pop. Having donned their jazz shoes and stretched out to “Crazy in Love,” the boys thrust and shake their hips like Beyoncé, each one sassier than the last. This isn’t just some kinky, all-male contest though — it’s practice. There are less than two weeks until the Mask & Wig Club’s fall show, and the troupe has barely begun rehearsing.
And so begins the week and a half of intense seven-to-twelve-hour-a-day practices. This show, which is considerably younger than the troupe’s spring production, is a full two-hour performance in the club’s traditional brand of irreverent humor dating back to Wig’s origins in 1888.
This year, Mario Brothers, Where Art Thou? — performed six times over the course of a week — is complete with song and dance numbers, band performances, brief Saturday Night Live-style sketches and the requisite tap dance at the end of the first act. The skits, which comprise most of the show, haven’t even been cast yet.
Back in the rehearsal room, wide-eyed freshmen, or “new guys,” from the cast are standing wobbly in their unbroken-in tap shoes, still trying to figure out how to dance with comedic sharpness without falling flat on their faces.
Shep Berg, the bespectacled College senior directing the 31st annual fall show, keeps pacing in and out of the mirrored rehearsal space, making phone calls and changes to the script. While he laughs along with the rest of the guys as they goof off, Shep has the hardest task in the room — to put on a serious face and tell the boys to get back to work. We have a show to do.
Happy Clubbie Day!
But it’s tough to keep a straight face in a room filled with perpetual joking, mocking and general debauchery. Each set they practice inevitably turns into an unspoken competition to be the funniest guy in the room. At least five of them have been pantsed within the first few hours of rehearsal.
Chirag Pathre, a Wharton sophomore and “second year” guy, starts teaching a number’s choreography with a modest authority. His leadership is just as impressive as his dancing — he casually moves from a backflip to a booty roll within seconds. While Chirag has memorized most of the moves, he, like the other underclassmen, still has an air of uncertainty about him that discreetly shows he’s not a “clubbie” yet.
Being a clubbie — a title given to juniors and seniors — means being a leader within the group, someone who has proven himself both with humor and dedication to the club. The dichotomy that arises between clubbies and the new and second year guys is subtle, however, as the group has bonded with the second years and is learning to mesh with the new.
Still, the difference is clear when you look at them closely. Clubbie and College senior David Thayer randomly announces “Happy Clubbie Day!” on several occasions to showcase their superiority, while the other clubbies snap in applause like a posse of southern sorority girls.
Before breaking for dinner, the cast runs through the opening scene. When they finish this round of rehearsals, the guys excitedly start jumping up and down and crashing into one another as though they had just won the Super Bowl, shouting “R-B-C-C!” over and over again.
When the group calms down to change out of their jazz shoes and head out, one freshman quietly looks to another to ask what the clubbies’ chant meant. “I dunno,” the other responds. When Shep is asked about its meaning, he just looks up with a sneaky grin and mutters, “It’s a secret.”
Shut up and sing
The next day, the cast members are ready to rehearse with their vocal coach, Gene Bender — a brawny, booming man who has coached the troupe through decades of shows. Gene has a cough today, but it doesn’t keep him from chugging two Red Bulls or shouting over the boys’ chitchat to “shut up and sing.”
It seems that few people could have such command over a group as rowdy as this one, but Gene pulls it together. The combination of his sense of humor and love for the group seems to leverage his ability to keep them in line. After two hours of jumping back and forth between great and terrible vocals for the opening song alone, they harmonize perfectly.
Nevertheless, the guys aren’t totally compliant to his directions.
After Gene grabs a chair to hold his notes and computer, the boys start to mess with him in an organic process of troublemaking. They begin moving more chairs toward Gene when he looks away, eventually leading to a pile-up of random objects like the “wet floor” sign and a stack of room dividers that Chairman and College senior Alon Gur shadily carried to the spot. Gene looks over — not nearly as surprised as one might expect — rolls his eyes and gets back to work without a word.
Less fratty, more fraternal
Troupe members — notorious for antics such as performing in the nude at their Quad Spring Fling show — say Wig is often thought of as a “fratty” group on campus for its humorous traditions and all-male membership requirement.
The troupe’s 123-year history hosts a wealth of prominent alumni. The club’s list of graduates reads like a record of some of Penn’s most well-known alumi, such as Gordon Bodek and Adolph Rosengarten.
This long legacy has fostered some of the strongest bonds known at Penn. Many past clubbies visit every year for an alumni-only spring performance, providing current members not only networking opportunities, but also the chance to see some of the club’s oldest alumni telling stories and playing classic Wig songs.
After becoming close with alumni and making lifelong bonds with his club-mates, College senior and Band Leader Wolete Moko said he feels the group has become “less fratty and more fraternal” during his time in Wig.
“But I like that it’s fratty!” Engineering senior and clubbie Cameron Smith-Rapoport interjects.
The troupe’s wooden-walled clubroom in the northeast corner of Riepe College House — a section the club donated in 1908 when the dorm was built — appears much like a fraternity house living room. There’s a deer head mounted above the fireplace. Only one light bulb is working in the modest chandelier. Old show programs line the walls. The furniture is a mess, and the trombonist casually empties the spit from his instrument onto the rug.
The band is practicing here today, with only a few days left for rehearsals. The pianist is sick in bed, throwing a wrench into the rehearsal plans. Some of the guys come back from a break to a surprise that two other musicians made changes to the key of most of a song.
What could go wrong?
Before they know it, it’s a few hours until Wednesday’s opening night at the Iron Gate Theatre. The boys, who have been in constant rehearsals since Saturday, are a sea of bright eyes and blank stares at their final dress rehearsal.
Despite all this, Shep says that this is the “single least stressful year ever” for the fall show, and that morale is “really, really high.” Last year, Shep observed a lot of the production for the show and made notes to tweak this year’s schedule and help it run more smoothly.
Nevertheless, tension runs high. Lines are forgotten, lights go off at the wrong times, the set is still getting painted and the band has to add more bars to a song at the last minute. As they conclude a scene, Shep laments, “that was a trainwreck. We have to do it again,” to which a band member replies, “What was wrong?”
Louder, faster, funnier
With less than two hours to go, it’s hard to see how the show will come together. The troupe hasn’t finished rehearsing the first act, and they had to cancel a scene during the production so they can polish it for Thursday’s show. Though some of the guys don’t quite know how the night will go, the clubbies are sure the show will be good. It always is.
And after less than an hour of preparing themselves in a messy, whitewashed dressing room below the stage, the group is ready to perform.
The lights go down across the audience, the band crosses the stage and up to their instruments and the cast jumps onto the stage. The spotlights come on and the boys are louder, faster and funnier than they’ve been all day. The crowd cheers and within another two hours, they’ve nailed the performance.
This show — the one that came together in under two weeks with demanding rehearsals and much sleep lost — is more than just a few months of writing, a couple weeks of practicing and several hours of post-rehearsal pizza.
The club’s fall show opened this Wednesday night, and within a week, the troupe will be on to writing and preparing for its spring show. But while the performances come and go, the tradition and brotherhood of Mask & Wig has been a show in the making since 1888.