Skip to main content

Trekking into comedy at SET

Nicholas Schell and Cheryl Platz ready for alien encounters.
Photo: Tony Beeman
The actors are pulling on their polyester uniforms again at Seattle Experimental Theater. The company’s hit homage to the original “Star Trek” TV series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” opens tomorrow (Jan. 8) at the Theatre Off Jackson.

These audience-driven episodes of the Enterprise’s continuing mission have played to serious fans at Emerald City Comicon and Geek Girl Con as well as at various improv festivals and theaters. The company, and the show, debuted in 2011. Fans pick key elements for every performance within the framework of “Alien Planet” or “Space Sickness” or, new for 2015, “Worthy Opponent.” In the latter, which will debut during the January performances, mysterious alien visitors defined by audience suggestions are beamed aboard and create tension on the Enterprise.

The crew for the January performances will be Tony Beeman, Paul Levy, Colin Madison, Cheryl Platz, Wayne Pishue, Jekeva Phillips, and Nicholas Schell.

Platz, who often plays Nurse Chapel or other ladies in skants, and Schell, who takes the helm as the Captain, discussed how they first beamed into this ongoing comedy gig that gave them a vacation in Hawaii. Both have been donning their Trekkie costumes since 2011. Platz also works as a Senior UX Designer at Amazon and her past employers include Microsoft, Griptonite Games, Electronic Arts and Disney. She frequently participates in outreach programs to encourage young women and men to consider careers in technology. Schell graduated with an MFA in acting from Western Illinois University and credits his Midwest upbringing with teaching him to be nice to people and believing that “vegetables naturally come wrapped in meat, cheese and bread.” He participates in Seattle Theatresports as part of the Unexpected Productions ensemble.

How did you get involved in this improv adventure?
Platz: Our director, Jeannine Clarke, and I had just completed performing alongside each other in the “Vagina Monologues” back in early 2011. I remember when she first mentioned her idea for the show while we were in the dressing room one night, and I knew immediately I wanted to audition. I had a renewed interest in original “Star Trek” after doing research to moderate a panel with Leonard Nimoy.

Schell: I saw a posting on a performer's callboard. I admit I wasn't much of a Trekkie when I auditioned.

So what did you know about the series before you started this?
Schell: I had seen most of the original series, and a lot of “Next Generation” (my mom is a big fan). But as far as trivia and in-depth knowledge, I had very little. I just went to the audition to have fun and it all worked out.

Platz: Growing up, I had a complicated relationship with “Trek” – my brother loved it, so I originally wanted to hate it, as sisters do. But my father’s love of “Trek” ran much deeper than any of us, so in a way it was reclaiming a birthright. I moderated Nimoy’s panel at Emerald City Comicon 2010 and he was the epitome of classy. I've had a few encounters with Wil Wheaton. I brought him bacon salt once.

What's been the most interesting venue for “Where No Man Has Gone Before”?
Schell: Emerald City Comicon, hands down. It's a blast and fun to perform for people who are really familiar with the tropes and characters.

Platz: Hundreds of people in a packed house, many in Starfleet uniforms, unabashedly sharing their mutual love of this remarkable series. I remember how shocked we were to see our line snaking around the entire floor that first time!

Schell: When there's that much energy and people in one room, it's a different level.

Where has this show taken you in terms of places that you never thought you'd visit or acting that you'd never thought to do?
Schell: Geographically, I don't know if I would have gone to Hawaii if not for this show (the company played Hawaii Improvaganza in 2012).

Platz: Many of us had never been to Hawaii, but it also turned out to be a really receptive audience. For one of those performances, an audience member brought up the birther controversy as a suggestion, so we got to explore a very relevant social topic through the lens of Trek for them. There’s something magical about those performances where we can manage to be both funny and thought-provoking in the scope of a single story.

Schell: As far as acting goes, it is really fun to continually develop a character, without a script. Improv exercises are common when you work on a scripted play, but at the end, you follow the script. Playing a character in an improvised play is more trial and error. You try something and see if it fits, or maybe you learn something unexpected.

Platz: Incidentally, it turns out the salty sea air of the Hawaiian Islands makes it much easier to achieve those 1960s hairdos. We take particular pride in being as period-accurate as much as possible with hair, makeup, costuming, and cultural norms (to a point.)

What's the easiest or hardest part of playing those iconic 1960s characters?
Platz: There’s very little easy about the Original Series uniforms, actually. It’s amazing how short those skirts were, even then! The official term for TOS female crew uniforms was “skant,” which is oddly appropriate. But I’m strangely proud to wear the crew uniform.

Schell: The captain’s log at the beginning of most episodes. It's difficult not to plan when you know you are going to make the first offer. I have to concentrate on clearing my mind and just start talking. Since that is Kirk's MO in a nutshell, everything after that point is easier.

Platz: The most challenging part of these performances is combining the suggestions with all that we know about how our characters and their peers acted in the existing series. As much as possible, we try to honor the canon, watching and re-watching episodes to keep our memories fresh. In this set of performances, I’m playing the helmswoman, so I’ve been watching any episode I can find to study Sulu’s technique and vocabulary.

Any suggestions from the audience ever throw the cast for a loop?
Platz: After nearly four years working together, I trust that this cast and crew can roll with anything, but there have been some particularly zany suggestions.

Schell: I can't remember any specific ones. When you base your performance on suggestions from the audience, that's always a possibility. But, if you really embrace the suggestions and play to 11, then you will set yourself up for a successful performance.

What’s a favorite moment then?
Platz: At an improv festival last February we had to rid a planet of Clippy, which was particularly fun since two of us were Microsoft employees at the time. During a Space Sickness episode, the symptom we got was “wrestling,” so my Nurse Chapel had the rare honor of “defeating” Captain Kirk in unarmed combat while infected. I’m also a huge Muppet geek – having worked as a Muppet at Sesame Place for three summers – so when we got the suggestion “Planet of the Muppets,” my mind exploded backstage. I still have fond memories of playing Piggy and attempting to marry “Kirky” after he sustained a bit of amnesia and began singing “Rainbow Connection.”

If you could play any role in any Star Trek series or movie, who or what would that be?
Platz: What a tough question! If we’re working from existing roles, despite my love for the original series as a whole, I’d have to say Beverly Crusher. I always looked up to her a bit growing up, with TNG on repeat almost to a fault in my home, and I love the complexity of the relationship she has with Picard. She’s smart and very courageous. Plus, I’d love a spin or two in the Holodeck. But the interesting thing about the series as a whole now is that new characters are emerging thanks to the reboot. “Star Trek” is the storytelling gift that keeps on giving – and that’s what keeps us coming back to “Where No Man Has Gone Before” year after year.

Schell: I already am playing my favorite role.