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The “Improv” Scene
You’re on a stage. You have no idea what you’re supposed to say, what part you’re playing, or even what the scene is about. Another player and an audience full of people are all looking at you, waiting for you to do something.
Sound like a nightmare? The students in Yale’s four improvisational comedy groups think it sounds like fun.
“My first rehearsal was the most frightening experience I’ve ever had,” says David Moore '98, a member of a group called the Viola Question. “After three years, it’s not frightening anymore, but I still get a huge rush when I go on stage.”
That rush is an experience that has been attracting a growing number of undergraduates—enough so that in just 12 years, Yale’s improv groups have become an institution on campus whose recruiting efforts rival those of the much older a cappella singing groups like the Spizzwinks, the Duke’s Men, and even the Whiffenpoofs. Their institutional structure is much like that of the singing groups: They compete for freshmen and other new talent in an organized fall campaign, perform on and off campus throughout the year, and go on tour during fall and spring breaks. And like singing group members, improv performers sign up as much for the fun and camaraderie as for the satisfaction of performing. “We do it for ourselves,” says Moore. “If others want to come and watch, that’s okay.”
Improv troupes fly by the seat of their pants, using minimal means to create scenes that they hope will be both coherent and funny. In groups of two or more at a time, they conjure up stories, songs, and jokes using no props, no costumes, and no scripts.
But the performers are not usually working completely without a net. Most improv is built around a series of “games” with specific rules that provide a structure. A game called “The Big Event,” for example, requires performers appearing in pairs to create scenes that take place before, during, or after a historical event suggested by the audience. Most of the games, in fact, rely on audience suggestions—an interpersonal relationship, a location, a stock character—to help drive the characters and the plot. So in the Viola Question’s “Soap Opera” game, a performer might find himself playing the part of a “forgetful entertainer,” an “unhappy matriarch,” or a “deposed duke” in a soap opera called “Tulsa.”
It is no surprise that improv comedy has such a strong following at Yale and on other college campuses, since the genre was largely invented by a group of University of Chicago theater students in the 1950s. The group, which included the soon-to-be-famous comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, started the Playwright’s Theater Group in a Chicago storefront after graduation. The organization ultimately evolved into the famed Second City troupe, whose graduates have gone on to define the genre of sketch comedy on such television shows as Saturday Night Live and SCTV.
Improv comedy at Yale also traces its origins back to Second City. Steve Florsheim ’87, a Chicago native who had taken a class at Second City, formed Yale’s first troupe, the Exit Players, in the spring of 1985. His original idea was to do not only improvisation but “theater that broke down the barriers between audience and performers.” (The name is an acronym for Experimental Improvisational Theater.) Accordingly, the auditions for the group weren’t confined to the rehearsal room but involved street-theater games: staged fights between characters playing lovers in a mall or a fashion show in the Morse College courtyard, for example.
The following fall, another Chicagoan, Eric Berg ’87, gathered a group of theater friends together as the Purple Crayon. Berg had taken a semester off in his sophomore year to study at ImprovOlympic in Chicago, a Second City spinoff that specializes in a long-form improv game called the “Harold,” in which players weave together three recurring scenes interspersed with shorter games. (The group is named for the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon, which features a fast-thinking boy who is able to draw himself out of trouble.) The Harold became the Purple Crayon’s specialty in its early years.
The next group on campus, the Viola Question, arrived in the fall of 1986 with a different perspective. Founding director Jonathan Berman ’89 says he was inspired less by existing improv groups than by the sketch comedy he grew up with on television. “I wanted to develop something like a variety show, with improv and sketches and a musical guest,” says Berman. “We held the notion that we were not the theater person’s improv group.” (The origin of the group’s name is a secret closely guarded by members.)
The fourth group, Just Add Water, was founded in the spring of 1987. Its original members were students who were not tapped for the Purple Crayon, and the older group helped them get started and loaned them personnel who taught them improv games. (Another Yale group, the Fifth Humour, specializes in sketch comedy but not improv.)
The improv world is populated by both actors and comedians, each bringing different skills and sensibilities to the groups. Only a few are studying theater formally. Purple Crayon director Kate Sandberg ’99, a theater studies major, says her group includes students majoring in astrophysics, biology, and ethics, politics, and economics. Many appear in extracurricular theater productions, but many are less interested in “acting” than in simply being funny. Some have done improv before coming to Yale, while others have backgrounds in speech and debate—appropriate training for thinking on one’s feet.
“Improv draws from a different pool than conventional theater does—it’s not as distant an art form,” says Phil Lamarr ’88, an original member of the Purple Crayon. “People interested in improv are interested in things that are funny. Serious actors are deathly afraid of improv.”
But Murray Biggs, a professor of theater studies who has looked to the groups for lead actors in three recent plays, thinks the groups are important to Yale’s lively theater scene. “Improv work is not only fulfilling and satisfying, but it has a useful impact on theater at Yale, much stronger than has been acknowledged,” he says. “For one play in particular, I was looking for the most spontaneous type of acting, and it was useful to have students who could give extra freshness to each moment in the theater.”
Whatever else improv performers tend to be—actors, debaters, or comedians—they also tend to be men. None of the four groups has as many women as men; the Viola Question and Just Add Water each have only one woman this year. Theories abound as to why this is the case; most group members think it has to do with social conditioning. “Women are inherently no less funny than men,” says Jonathan Berman. “But they are socialized against risk-taking. It is important for a group to create space for women to let their talents shine.”
For men and women alike, though, improv is very much a team sport, and groups have often reluctantly turned away very funny people because they doubted their ability to work with others. “If you ask who is the best improvisational comedian in the world, most people would say Robin Williams, but I wouldn’t want to share a stage with him,” says Eric Berg.
Because so much of successful improv depends on the chemistry among performers, the groups spend a good deal of time getting to know each other better. The members of the Viola Question end each rehearsal by sitting down in what they call a “Happy Circle.” “It’s really a misnomer,” says director Cyndi Nguyen ’99. “It’s a time to touch base and air our gripes. It’s also a nice way to catch up on news and how people are doing.” Members tell of romantic problems, extracurricular work, and academic burdens.
When members know each other well, they tend to anticipate where their fellow performers might be going with a scene and help them get there. They can also keep them on their toes. “The best performers know how to force the others to be fresh by not letting them fall back on their stock characters,” says Florsheim.
One way of doing that is by “pimping” another performer while on stage, which essentially means setting up a fellow player for a difficult task that cannot be refused. “You might say to someone, ’Sing that song for me, the one in Chinese in iambic pentameter,’” says Berg by way of example. Since the audience is well aware that a challenge has been issued, the pimped performer has little choice but to give it a shot or find a clever way out of doing it.
When new members arrive in the fall, they are usually easy to spot in rehearsals: They are a bit more stiff and less confident about their characters than veterans. That self- consciousness is the first thing that has to go. “Learning to do improv is more unlearning than learning,” says Phil Lamarr. “Children are usually very good at it, then they start to lose the ability at around 11 years old.”
The unlearning process involves a rigorous schedule of rehearsals in which the new recruits are rotated into the many games in the group’s repertoires. Between games, the directors and other veterans offer criticism and acquaint the new members with some of the basic rules of improv. They are advised that “going for the joke”—disrupting the coherence or progress of a scene for the sake of a good punchline—is a no-no. “The highest goal is not to hit the joke, but to set the joke up,” says Just Add Water director David Mascari ’99. Another oft-repeated dictum is that “If someone says something, it’s true.” Performers are discouraged from negating something a fellow performer says, even if it takes the scene in a direction they weren’t prepared to pursue. Finally, they learn that when playing a scene, one must quickly establish a conflict between the characters, define a physical space for the scene (usually through some combination of dialogue and pantomime), and, where possible, establish a past for the characters to juice up the plot.
Most performers agree that while a certain creativity and inherent sense of humor is important, almost anyone—given the right training—can succeed at improv. Says Mascari: “We take a lot of people who seem stiff and nervous in auditions but who give us the feeling they’re willing to learn. We look for people who have funny minds, but improv is really a skill, something you can learn, like lifting weights.”
Once the new recruits have had some training in the fall, the groups start their performance schedule for the year. On-campus shows provide an audience of friends and fellow students, who challenge the groups with sophisticated suggestions and appreciate local humor. “You can make a joke about [Dean of Student Affairs] Betty Trachtenberg and people will know what you’re talking about,” says Mascari.
But it is during tours—when they are doing shows every day and spending exceptional amounts of time together—that groups often reach their comedic peaks. All the groups typically embark on a quick tour of New England during Thanksgiving break and a more ambitious tour of California, Florida, or the Caribbean over spring break.
“My freshman year we went on a tour to Jamaica, and the shows weren’t going well because we were so relaxed,” recalls Leigh Bardugo ’97, an Exit Players alumna now pursuing an acting career in New York. “We were like, ’We’re in Jamaica. Who cares?’ But then we did this show at a couples resort, and the management was really obnoxious to us. They wouldn’t let us stay there; they wouldn’t even give us a place to put our things. We were so filled with hate by the time we went on we did this amazing show.”
While improv is something of a nationwide phenomenon on college campuses, Yale is the only college known to have more than two groups. Just why improv flourishes here is uncertain, but it may be the combination of a historically strong theater culture and the Yale undergraduate’s well-known penchant for creating organizations. And just as one singing group, fraternity, or secret society begets another, the improv groups sprang up in quick succession. “Four groups is probably excessive,” says Amy Wilson ’91, a former Exit Player. “But a nice thing about Yale is that if you want to do something here, you can.”
Despite the varied intentions behind the founding of the groups, they now seem to a casual observer to do very much the same thing; they even play some of the same games. But members can explain subtle differences in their groups’ approaches. The Purple Crayon is often described as the most theatrically based group. While they rarely performs their trademark Harold game anymore (“It’s somewhat scary to us, and attention spans have gotten a lot shorter,” says Kate Sandberg), they still prefer scene-based games. In its Dream Game, for example, an audience volunteer gives details of how she spent her day, then the group improvises a dream she might have that night.
David Mascari says that Just Add Water is concerned less with a scene’s logic than with the laughs it might provoke. “I have no problem with hearing ‘That was really funny’ instead of ‘That was really coherent,’” he says. Mascari counts musical games as “the heart of what we do.” In these, performers are usually given a subject and a musical style; the group’s pianist provides an appropriate riff to create a blues number about spinach or a Broadway show tune about being tone deaf. Not only do the performers have to be funny quickly, they also have to rhyme.
Some of the groups are also fond of guessing games, in which a performer is asked to leave the room while a critical piece of information about a scene is decided. In Just Add Water’s “Forged Résumé” game, a performer has to interview for a job without knowing what the job is; the game is over when he bluffs his way into figuring it out.
The Viola Question emphasizes its scene-based games and its laid-back camaraderie, and the Exit Players favor games with a director who keeps the action moving quickly. Among these are “Jump Styles,” a fast-paced game in which two performers advance a scene while frequently switching genres—western movie, film noir, even Islamic televangelism.
While most improv performers are in it just for the fun, a few have gone on to careers in show business. Phil Lamarr appeared in the movie Pulp Fiction, and is now a regular on the Fox sketch comedy series Mad TV. Amy Wilson has done improv in clubs in New York, and taped ten episodes of an improv-based comedy series for NBC that has since been shelved. Jeff Stock ’88, who played piano for the Purple Crayon and performed in Just Add Water, wrote the music for Triumph of Love, a musical that opened on Broadway this fall.
Even some alumni who aren’t officially in show business have found uses for their training. Eric Berg and Steve Florsheim, the founders of Yale’s two oldest groups, have since returned to Chicago, and while they have pursued improv on an extracurricular basis, their day jobs also require them to be quick-witted in public and fast on their feet: They are trial lawyers.
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