In 1971, the UA student newspaper sent Carter to review the first production of a bizarre new countercultural theater collective called Invisible Theatre. Carter gave the show a glowing review, and perhaps not coincidentally the part-time magician and escape artist was soon a member of the IT team.
"It was the most exciting thing happening in Tucson at that time," Carter recalls. "Dennis [Hackin] was the prime mover and first cause of everything for the first eight or nine shows; then he went to New York, and I worked with some of the other people to take over the helm."
Carter himself left Tucson in 1976, feeling that he'd run out of ideas. Although he's been back periodically to visit family and, in the 1980s, do standup routines, he's never again set foot on the Invisible Theatre stage--until now. (Actually, back in Carter's day, IT was based downtown in the space now claimed by the Etherton Gallery.) Carter will deliver his comic autobiographical monologue Heavy Breathing at IT October 16-19. He wrote and first performed the work in 1986, a few years after Spalding Gray had started using a similar format, but before Gray popularized it nationally with the film version of Swimming to Cambodia.
Heavy Breathing falls into two unnatural acts, the first detailing Carter's inglorious early years in California writing soft-core pornography, and the second dealing with his lifelong battle with asthma.
Carter wrote and memorized the show in six weeks, after a near-death asthma experience. He originally performed it in an extremely limited run at a small New York club, but since then he's taken it and its sequel, Suspension Bridge, to such venues as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival and Garry Marshall's Falcon Theatre.
"This became something I'd do whenever I had a break from producing, as a way to get me back to performing," he says. "When you're producing you forget what it's like to be a performer, and the insecurities of being a performer, but this reminds me of what it's like and it makes me more sensitive in dealing with the actors and performers I work with."
Carter didn't work with performers during his year and a half in the porn biz; he wrote for an outfit that put out books, magazines and various interesting products. "They lived in fear each day of having the police bust the operation," he says. "So to fight that, they had delineations of what type of work you did, so the police could only bust one side and not the other. On one side of the hallway was hardcore, and on the other was soft-core. I worked in soft-core, and my girlfriend worked across the hall. Ironically, they also had a romance novel division, so you'd see these gray-haired ladies coming in with these bodice rippers, these sweet tales they'd written set in the English countryside, making their way through these corridors of porn."
In his off hours, Carter put together his first standup comedy act, and by the mid 1980s he was performing in clubs across the country. He disliked life on the road, though, and worked his way into television--first as an MTV writer, then on to Comedy Central and, more recently, the production company Oxygen Media. Carter maintains that most of the jobs he's gotten in the last 15 years were through people who'd seen Heavy Breathing.
Yet he also credits his five years or so with Invisible Theatre as preparing him for his later career.
"We tried to do a new show every six weeks," he recalls. "Generally the writers were either Bob Campbell, myself, Merle Reagle or Harry Robins, but other people did material, also. There was always pressure to get the next show going; I'd write one, then direct the next one, then produce the next, then act in the next. You'd flip-flop your roles to keep the fields fertile. It was a very trying time, but it was like what you read in one of John Houseman's memoirs of the Mercury Theater in the 1930s--not that we were on the level of Orson Welles or Clifford Odets, but there is this sense of a group of young people trying to work at the top of their game, and it's very exciting.
"What Invisible Theatre prepared me for was taking complete responsibility for everything. A lot of what can be a burden to a lot of people in New York and Los Angeles who want to be actors is an essential passivity. It's easy to sit around and say, 'The executives are stupid, the networks are stupid, the directors don't realize I'm a genius.' Dennis Hackin taught me to take initiative for myself. And I had to, as soon as I started doing standup--you're responsible for your own material, your props, wardrobe, booking, you're your own dramaturge, and that's a better way to live your life, where you're taking charge of all the facets of your career.
"That's something a lot of the standups who came out in '85, '86 didn't get; they were just passive. Chris Rock, who I was able to use a lot on Politically Incorrect, told me later, 'Before you started calling me I was sitting around playing video games all day.' The main thing to do is to keep being productive the whole time. Some of the most talented people I've ever worked with were people I worked with in Tucson, and it developed in me a more sophisticated notion of what it takes to become a success. It's not just talent; it's a lot of other things: a lot of work, and a lot of luck."