Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Star (Dare To Dream)

The Star (Dare To Dream)
When I was in high school we formed an improv comedy troupe called The Sausage Works. As a burgeoning impresario I was fairly decent at booking gigs and even creating swag, like buttons. We even got airtime on a public access show, a program of which, not coincidentally, I was a co-producer.

What I spent much less time on was developing our craft, rehearsal, or being in any way amusing. Ours was a terrible improv comedy troupe. Good name, terrible improv. Should have put that on a shirt.

In college I was a member of the improv comedy troupe, Rupture, and by that time I had taken some classes and had at the very least the benefit of experience. (More on that here.) One of our crew suggested a wide variety of theater games we could play that would make for good comedy, including Party Quirks, Radio Dial and Singing The Blues.

Once during winter break in late 1988, this same friend suggested we all see the preeminent Cleveland troupe Giant Portions, which at that time included such notable performers as Lisa Lewis, Jeff Blanchard and Marc Moritz.

We all had a fun time, but I was taken aback and a little disappointed to discover that every single theater game we employed in our performance were from Giant Portions’ act. All of this original work I thought we were doing, and we were just copying off another company.

Now, I know that good improvisation is not about the structure you use but how you work with it. All games are merely tools to facilitate spontaneous, honest discovery and emotional reaction.

Having said that, there is nothing spontaneous after thirty years of Party Quirks. I saw Cabaret Dada three times, almost five years apart each time, and though the faces had changed, each time they played Party Quirks and I gotta tell ya, Tourette’s Syndrome wasn’t actually funny the first time.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy improvisation, and improv comedy, and have actively sought out long-form improv, when it is available. No one has made a run at it in Cleveland since Dobama’s Night Kitchen.

In my own way, I militantly keep working to push young people into the form at our annual summer theater camp. My journey to Alaska meant missing the second week of our annual Camp Theater (for which I am extremely grateful to my employer) but two weeks ago I had the opportunity to lead a team of middle and high schoolers through a series of basic storytelling exercises, the goal being to be able to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end using monologue, two person scenes and a conclusion incorporating an entire team of four.

This year it was much more like a competition, as each of four teams watched each other work and one was declared “winner” by acclamation. They also squared off performing “Jump” improv (competing to see how many different scenarios could they begin within two minutes) and then volunteers played First Line, Last Line with surprising success. It was a very focused group this year, they took the work very seriously. We created our little nightclub, this time called The Star (Dare To Dream) and had a great morning, just performing improv for each other before moving onto the Shakespearean splash scenes for their families that afternoon.

The Star (Dare To Dream). That was the name they chose for their nightclub. One suggested we call it The Star, another added, "No, no -- call it The Star ... dare to dream!"  That's the crew we had this year. They were awesome.

Scared Scriptless: Weekend at Bernie's Sketch
Last Wednesday at Last Frontier, there was a party following Valerie’s performance, and so no Fringe performance was scheduled to take place in the Mariner’s Room. Instead, three guys from the Anchorage improv troupe Scared Scriptless -- John, Warren and Will -- staged an impromptu show, and many went along to see that.

We only caught the last twenty minutes or so, but I really enjoyed the style of sketch they were employing. The physical Weekend at Bernie’s scenario notwithstanding (though that is certainly hysterical the first time you see it) most of the work was cerebral, much of it steeped in argument and counter-argument and the kind of insult humor which works best among aggressively competitive friends.

These were very different games to me, just stepping out to interrupt each other (what we called Give & Take in The Realistic World) to riff on a subject offered by the audience. Objection is a game I will certainly be stealing for use in the future. I had the chance to walk and talk with John my last night in town and he said it’s rare for Scared Scriptless to perform with a skeleton troupe of three.

My fictional improv comedy team The Times (from This Is The Times) is also a three-person company, and I have dithered about whether to rewrite the entire thing with additional company members, but there is a magic in three, especially when you are trying to keep your story neat and compact. Watching three guys ping back and forth like that was particularly inspiring.

One of the things which is most challenging in coaching teenagers to improv is encouraging them to trust their brains, to speak without fear, and most of all to trust each other. We are conditioned from birth basically to be assholes. Every tweener program on the Disney Channel conditions our kids to point and laugh at others, to mock and dismiss. This is not unique to that network, but when my daughter began to watch their programs she immediately began to model the behavior.

The family mutually agreed she had to stop watching Jessie if she wanted to remain a good person.

Yes, we have the opportunity to play fools on stage, but the players need to be there for each other for it all to work. This year the program at The Star (Dare To Dream) included a great many scenarios where people were helping each other to achieve some bizarre goal, and those scenes worked best. It was the scenarios where campers couldn’t separate their personal feelings from the characters they were playing, and engaged in direct conflict that the scenes fell apart.

Our improv guru at Ohio University was the head of the Masters in Directing program, George Sherman. He had been a member of The Compass in St. Louis. You could count on him to attend every single Bobcats basketball game, the man was fanatic about basketball. Because basketball is the sport most aligned with the skills necessary for improvisation.

Come get your Love.
He put it this way; football is like rehearsing a play. You get to experiment and play around in practice, developing a rigid set of scenes or plays which you then perform pretty much the way you rehearsed them on game day. In basketball the practice is drilling the structure of the game in rehearsal, but on the day you trust your instincts and your teammates and anything goes. That’s improv.

Big parade today downtown for the greatest improv troupe in America. #AllIn216 #GoCAVS


  1. Not to be picky, but Jeff Blanchard and Lisa Lewis were not members of Giant Portions in 1988. That was still the original group of Moritz, Buckland, Heyman, Armour, Weinberg and Fahey

    1. Be picky! I guess I should have said, "in its time."