Behind the Scenes: Rehearsing spontaneity

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
From the February 14, 2013 edition

Practicing improvisation — the very definition of which requires reacting in the moment — seems as much an oxymoron as acting natural.

But once a week members of local comedic improv theater troupe Comedy Kitchen gather inside the Short North Stage’s Green Room to do just that.

To prepare for its performances, which are every other Thursday, Comedy Kitchen’s members participate in games designed to perfect the players’ short form improv techniques. (Short form improv shows are composed of quick-hit games based off audience suggestions, similar to what we all used to watch on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”)

“Improv is all about the group dynamic. These practices are about learning how to work together,” said Comedy Kitchen member K-K Bracken.

At a recent practice the group of seven actors worked its way through a warm-up designed to get members used to imagining and having the stones to say out loud impossible/ ridiculous scenarios — “a gazelle looking at its water bill” or “a cat pooping in a toilet full of sand.”

“These games help us learn about timing,” said member Dan Montour. “They help us get used to each other and how we respond to each other’s presence and timing.”

Improv practice is also about learning to make your performance not about you.

“If you’re trying to tell a joke in improv,” Montour said, “it won’t work.”

A punchline can kill a scene immediately. Improv’s funny lies in continually building and crafting a scenario and seeing where the other person can go with it; a dah-dum-dum joke is like the final domino dropping, leaving your fellow player with nowhere to go. Learning to avoid that takes practice, even if the art’s rooted in spontaneity.

When improv’s done right, it’s not only funny, it’s smart. Example: As the team practiced the game Left, Bracken and member Dustin Meadows worked with an “audience-given” time before the 19th century, 1776. In the first couple rounds, Bracken pretended to be an English woman in the colonies selling tea, Meadows a cop. Eventually, the scene led to Bracken coyly admitting to murdering rebels with poisoned tea. “That’s it,” Meadows said. “Dump all the tea off the ship.”

A precaution the troupe takes when rehearsing — not practicing common audience examples so it doesn’t feel forced during the shows. Because if there’s anything that’s predictable during an improv show, it’s the audience.

My suggestion? Go see these guys. They’re funny. Also, don’t be afraid to get weird.