From humble beginnings to Houston’s finest stages, improvisers Autumn Clack and Ruth McCleskey have seen each other through it all. Now, after 12 years of friendship and five years as the duo Ophelia’s Rope, the comedy best buds are starring in Still Together: The Ophelia’s Rope Anniversary Show Friday and Saturday at Rec Room.
“Our very first scene together is actually what inspired our name,” says Clack, laughing, before McCleskey finishes the thought: “As any new improviser knows, it’s hard getting onstage. It’s overwhelming. So we both got pushed onstage, stared at each other and just did separate activities, 'cause that’s what you do when you don’t know what to do.”
Before long, Clack concludes, the two found themselves jumping rope. "It was this epic, silent playground battle between two children battling to be the best jump-roper. That was how it started,” she says.
Far from finished, this weekend's anniversary show just continues to tighten the bond between the twosome; the theater organization founded by the duo, The Boiling Point Players, will produce the two-night run.
As close as the pair are, McCleskey even finds the term “best friend” wanting. “We kind of refer to each other as artistic soul mates,” she declares with candor, before Clack adds: “It’s so gross, right?”
But McCleskey doubles down. “She pushes me, like in all forms of artistry, to keep growing in ways I would never think of," she says. "I can only think she’s like finding someone better than a muse, because they’re creating it with you.”
To that sweetness, Clack replies, “She’s always up for anything. I can text Ruth in the middle of the night, and she always wants to do whatever. Before I know it, we’re renting a space and putting up a show, before we even know what it is yet.”
As similar as their improv education was, McCleskey does note distinct differences in her and Clack’s comedy instincts. “It’s really cool to see, because Autumn’s a very [emotional] player, and she has a unique ability to craft relationships and make definitive feelings in scenes," McCleskey says. "Even when she’s onstage with other people, I can see how strong she is, but also how good she is at including people in that relationship. Seeing her play with others just makes me want to play with her all the more.”
Clack counters by recalling her early days in Massive Improv, which later became the hometown powerhouse Station Theatre. “When we started, Ruth was a great physical player, with such a range," she says. "But over the last 12 years, she’s become a head player to be reckoned with. She’ll come up with some of the smartest, cleverest stuff, that’s always based in character and relationship.
"She can just deliver facts on facts, always heightening the stakes, and a lot of scenes we’ve done with other groups over the years, even from rehearsals, are still things people call back to today," Clack continues. "To watch her own that powerful, witty side of herself is wonderful to behold.”
Ruth and Autumn alone would be fun, but that’s never been the way of Ophelia's Rope. The twosome reached out to a number of the city’s top players and got an overwhelming reply. Joining them are special guest teams No More Words (an all-silent show performed by Station Theater head honcho Jessica Brown and Brian Jones), The Magical Lying Hour (a semi-scripted romp that Clack credits for “really helping us up our A game,” featuring Aaron Garrett) and the always-fantastic Baby Knuckle (a four-piece comedy hurricane featuring CSz Houston Artistic Director Chad Minchew, Ryan Heine, Nate Suurmeyer and Kelly Harkins). Plus, the girls will be dropping a brand-new song – if they can remember it.
“That’s what makes the whole scripted thing a bit tougher,” laughs McCleskey.
After a dozen years together in the imaginary trenches, the duo has even developed a brief glossary of “inside baseball” terms – jokes and coded phrases that had previously been long-held Ophelia’s Rope secrets. “The way that we work together in improv is its own form of shorthand,” says Clack.
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“For example, when we say: ‘Do you want to warm up to each other?' most people in improv might think one thing. But usually what that means for us is Ruth turns around and I climb on her back, then we roll all over the floor! It’s a way for us to get physical and practice leverage.”
"There’s also ‘You wanna get queso?’ which is our code for ‘Let’s talk about our day completely before we start rehearsing,’ adds McCleskey. "If you ever look at our Instagram, you’ll see we’re connoisseurs of Texas queso, as well as many other cities we’ve been to. In fact, there had been talks of a queso cart for this show, but they’re actually pretty hard to come by.”
Guess that makes this event BYOQ – just make sure you’ve got enough to share.
Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. June 2 and 3 at Rec Room, 100 Jackson. For information, call 713-344-1291 or visit recroomhtx.com. $10-20.