Ray Laliberte tells his improvisation students at Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts that their objective onstage is “to get the audience to want to take you, personally, home for milk and cookies.”
The interactive, give-and-take format of improvisational comedy builds that bond between actors and audience as they collaborate on a comedy sketch.
Local theatergoers can become part of that collaboration by attending any of five improv comedy events coming to Chattanooga this month. Shows range from student performances to a week-long workshop with internationally known improv master Keith Johnstone, creator of Theatresports.
Improv comedy is a form of theater in which there is no script. Actors build scenes by listening to suggestions from their audiences, then improvising their lines and reactions to suit that scenario.
Think you’ve got a good sense of humor but unsure whether you could react quickly enough to hold up your end of an improv sketch? Runs with Scissors actor Steven Disbrow says if you can make conversation around the water cooler, you can do improv.
“Everybody does improv all day long,” said Mr. Disbrow, a computer consultant.
“Sit down at lunch with your friends, and somebody throws out a give — What’d you think of ‘Lost’ last night? — and you’re doing improv when you answer.
“Improv is so much easier (than traditional theater) because you don’t have to memorize anything. If you stay true to a scene, respect the reality of the scene, it’s going to end up being a good scene,” Mr. Disbrow said.
“The performer has to be in the moment, be present, not force anything and allow what’s going to happen,” said Rex Knowles, founder of Chattanoodle and theater teacher at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.
Mr. Knowles said his classroom mantra is “You accept every offer” — even when that suggestion once was “lost in George Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore.”
“One of the rules we cleave to in class is: You have to say ‘yes,’” Mr. Knowles said. “You are constantly supporting each other. Being present means listening to my partner, responding instead of making it up as I go. You make your partner perfect.”
Mr. Laliberte considers improv a mainstay of an actor’s training because “it is a solid basis for learning and listening.” Mr. Laliberte studied with Mr. Johnstone 13 years ago and brought that technique back to his classroom.
“You know you’re a good improviser when: a) your partner had a good time or b) they want to play with you again,” said Mr. Laliberte.
At Ooltewah High School, teacher Casey Jackson said his students start with those same fundamentals: help your partner out, make your partner perfect.
Anna Leach, 17, a junior at Ooltewah and a member of the school’s improv team, said the listening skills she’s learned in improv class have benefited her “beyond belief” in her core classes.
“The book we’re working out of teaches us to observe more around us. That’s helped me be more intent in a conversation and be a better listener in class lectures,” she said.
Miss Leach said she had a good sense of humor and could think quickly on her feet before signing up for improv, but the class has developed those skills.
“Improv class has taught me ‘appropriate behavior,’ the difference in joking with adults and joking around with students,” she said.
“Due to ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ and ‘Wild ‘n’ Out’ an entirely new crowd is seeing what improv is all about,” Mr. Jackson said.
“We do a great deal of audience participation. The audience loves their ideas being acted out. It’s a way for them to check that it’s not scripted,” the OHS teacher said.
“Improv develops quick thinking and humor in students,” Mr. Jackson said. “You don’t always have to be original, some of the funniest things are the most obvious. Improv trains students to see the humor in things.”
“The things that strike the largest chord with the audiences are the most realistic and downto-earth, what’s right before your eyes,” Mr. Disbrow said.
UPCOMING IMPROV PERFORMANCES
MONDAY: UTC Fine Arts Center, 7:30 p.m., Second City, $20. Second City is the famed improv troupe that has been the training ground for “Saturday Night Live” stars such as Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows. 425-4269.
EVERY SATURDAY THROUGH APRIL:
Center for Creative Arts, Sandra Black Theater, 1301 Dallas Road, 7:30 p.m., free, Plays Well With Others. CCA Improv classes perform; in lieu of admission, donations accepted to send students to Improvstock workshop. 209-5929.
MARCH 14: Ooltewah High School, OHS Little Theater, 6 p.m., $3. 238-5221
Creative Discovery Museum auditorium, 321 Chestnut St., 2 p.m., Laughing Matters. The Atlanta improv troupe presents two comedy routines for children and their parents. Suggestions will be collected from kids for the setting, characters and themes of the two sketches. Free with regular museum admission of $8.95 for children and adults. 756-2738
MARCH 31-APRIL 6: Improvstock, a week-long workshop with nationally known artist Keith Johnstone, sponsored by Skwalking Heads Productions. For more information, log onto skwalkingheads. com. LOCAL IMPROV TROUPES
PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS
Members: Two troupes of 28 and 24 members in grades 9-12 at Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts
Brand of comedy:
Shortform; currently studying longform
Audience favorites: Family dinner and Audience Story Retold. In Family Dinner, an audience member describes who would be seated at his Sunday dinner table and sets a scenario, then actors portray the family members based on that description. With each correct characterization, an audience member rings a bell; for a wrong action, the actor gets the buzzer. In Audience Story Retold, the stage director makes the ask (I need a sad story) and an audience member gets up, tells a personal experience matching the ask, then actors retell the story through improv.
Contact: Ray Laliberte, 209-5929
Members: Fifteen secondyear theater students in the professional acting training program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.
Brand of comedy: Shortform, currently studying longform and theater sports
Audience favorites: “We get our suggestions from the audience, it’s all audience-led. We’ll improvise songs on the spot,” instructor Rex Knowles said. “The reputation we have is that it’s appropriate for all ages.”
Contact: Rex Knowles, 503-2237
Founded: 1989, Chattanooga’s oldest improv troupe
Members: Eight core members, all adults from Chattanooga theater community
Brand of comedy: Shortform, some musical
Audience favorites: “It’s all taken from audience suggestions, we also invite audience members onstage for scenes. Our funniest routines are musicals; Sherry Landrum and Suzanne Smart have a sketch doing a song one word at a time,” said founder Rex Knowles.
Contact: Rex Knowles, 503-2237.
RUNS WITH SCISSORS
Members: Five core members, all adults from Chattanooga theater community
Brand of comedy: Shortform and longform; games, sketch comedy and improvisational murder mysteries.
Audience favorites: “For the past two years we have focused on performing in Late Bloomers,” said actor Steven Disbrow of the Friday late-night performances at Chattanooga Theatre Centre. “We go to the audience for the ask-for. We use as much audience interactivity as we can get. We love it. The more into it the audience is, the better the show.” Contact: Kevin Bartolomucci, 313-5428
Ask or ask-for: Question asked of the audience to start a scene.
Accepting: Embracing the offers made by other performers in order to advance a scene.
Blocking: Rejecting information or ideas offered by another player, a common problem of new improvisers.
Canceling: Making a previous action irrelevant. Once an action is canceled, it’s as if it hasn’t happened at all — usually a bad idea.
Longform improv: Shows with scenes interrelated by story or themes, often a musical.
Offer: Each spoken word or action an actor makes in a scene.
Shortform improv: Short scenes begun by an audience suggestion; sketches and games such as seen on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...