Improvisational comedy, the funny folks on TV with the super-quick quips doing games that evoke Charades and 20 Questions. Right? Few realize those games are gussied up versions of acting exercises, much less suspect them tied to something as grand as the impulse of life itself.
Upon wandering into DFW improv establishments, many experience a perception crash. These people on stage are not as funny as the ones on TV (who have decades of experience and are edited to show just the good bits). Or — gasp! — they don’t do games at all.
Welcome to the wide world of improv. Get your weird on with the Alternative Comedy Theater, where you might see a comic actor imitate a lizard or engage in conversation with someone portraying an abstract idea. Go deep with the Dallas Comedy House, whose humor spans from quip games to character-driven dramedy. Or enjoy a quick fix with the games-based Locked Out Comedy in Plano, ACT’s Extreme Improv Challenge held in Plano, and the well established Ad-Libs in Deep Ellum. The long-standing Four Day Weekend, which has its own club in Fort Worth, moves smoothly from games to sketches and even ventures into film.
Between these anchors are a host of free-floating troupes that pop up at the oddest times and places, but often at the late shows at Pocket Sandwich Theater. Some, like the Fun Grip Improv, Motley Players III, Pavlov’s Dogs, and The Victims are long-standing ensembles. Newer troupes include Band Wreckers, Fourth Wall Comedy, and Heroine Addiction. Staff ensembles at the Dallas Comedy House include Roadside Couch and Victory Point.
These improv performers are not simply naturally funny folks. They train like athletes with classes and workshops, practice like musicians with rehearsals and open stages. Improv instruction attracts more than just folks wanting to be funny on stage. The local improv and comedy festivals—Dallas Comedy Festival, Big Sexy Weekend of Improv and the newFrisco Comedy Festival—bring in guest instructors.
In the philosophy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, they do it for the bliss. Those times we create in the moment are when we are most alive.
Dallas Comedy Houseis a creativity factory, churning out comedy Tuesday through Saturday. On this Wednesday night it’s open mic improv when students and even people off the street try their hand at being as funny as the people on TV. We came prepared to watch rank amateurs stumble and space out on stage, lurching from bit to bit. Instead it was exuberant, like a comedy gym with eager students building up improv muscles.
Most of the crowd were students from Dallas Comedy House, but several wandered in from other improv establishments. Chad Cline and Jason Folks of Fourth Wall Comedy had dropped by to sharpen up before a benefit gig at the Fairmont. The youngish crowd of about 45 folks was sitting around knocking back drinks from the DCH’s surprisingly good bar when the emcee yelled “If you want to play, get up here!” Almost everyone in the crowd jumped on stage.
They counted off and divided into groups that used audience suggestions to craft scenes with strange little plots such as the amorous effects of putting roofies in cattle feed. At times when the action lulled, members of Victory Point, the house ensemble of experienced players, stepped up and guided it back on track.
Amanda Austin, the shrewd mother hen of the Dallas Comedy House, stepped in every once and while to check the action on stage: “Dallas has a lot of amazing comedic talent and our goal here has always been to give those people a place to grow as students with classes and workshops, and as performers with lots of stage time. Such an amazing community forms when a bunch of funny people all gather in one place.”
A recipe: Take a spectrum of improv classes in a Dyer St. office building, add in Extreme Improv Challenge at Café Bohemia in Plano, mix with performances by The Victims at the Pocket Sandwich Theater, and bake every spring in the Big Sexy Weekend of Improv at the Dyer St. Bar. Voila! You have concocted the Alternative Comedy Theater.
At the center of the comedic web is John Rawley, an actor 20 years decades of experience who a few years ago decided that teaching and doing improv was just more fun as well as more amenable to a family schedule. He keeps the comedy classes going, marshals the competitions, and with his laughter cohort Elizabeth Robinson spins a fun-spirited scene.
“That’s the beautiful thing about improv,” says Rawley, “there are so many different formats and styles, short form versus long form, games and competitions.” While Rawley excels as a performer with The Victims, he comes alive as a teacher of improv several nights a week. The eight students, who looked like geeks and office workers, crafted over and over again scenes of a few minutes, with just enough competitiveness to keep everyone on their toes. Some scenes went nowhere, some had a punchline, and some evoked a nodding acknowledgement of human behavior much as a dramatic play would.
After the games and short-form scene improv of levels 1 and 2, the emphasis in classes moves into long-form scenes that are essentially improvised one-act plays. Some of these can get mighty warped. One of Rawley’s students came up with improvised Shakespearian after-school specials.
Beyond acting, “Learning improv is about life skills, like truly listening to another person and controlling your impulses while still having a sense of fun,” says Rawley. “Every single conversation you’ve ever had was improvised. I’ve had so many former students tell me ‘I put my foot in my mouth a lot less now.’”
The Second City is essentially a comedy factory of performers, spewing out innumerable well-known comedy names and seemingly half the cast of Saturday Night Live. There are Second City theaters and training centers in Chicago, Tornoto and Hollywood, plus a host of touring companies that appear in venues and even cruise ships. All of it with the classic Second City cocktail mix of short improvised comedy scenes woven with songs and sketches. Frank Caeti, who performed and taught at the ambitious Dallas Comedy Fest, feels the Dallas improv scene has the depth and commitment of a young Second City.
Second City has mastered the art of malleable material that can be customized to most any region or topical meme. The Second City Does Dallas will run August 29 to September 30 at the Wyly Theatre to kick off the Dallas Theater Center’s fall season. Liz Mikel of the DTC’s Brierley Resident Acting Company will join with TSC alumni Frank Caeti, Amanda Blake Davis, Martin Garcia, Scott Morehead and John Sabine. Liz Mikel, who showed her comic chops so well in DTC’s Dividing the Estate, was the stand out. “I jumped at the opportunity, says Mikel. “I hope to rise to the occasion artistically. I’ve never done improv before.”
During the week of previews for The Second City Does Dallas, says Caeti, “You put it in front of the audience and see how it plays. You learn so much from that. It’s specifically to shape and fine-tune the material. Sometimes you’re just very surprised as to what works. Ultimately it’s the director’s decision as to what gets cut and what gets changed and how.”
So go ahead, do something original. Be in the moment. Improvise!
THE SECOND CITY DOES DALLAS
August 29 – September 30, 2012