Improvisational Comedy in DFW
by Amy Martin
Originally published in Arts+Culture North Texas, now defunct
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 tie them to something as grand as the impulse of life itself
Upon wandering into DFW improv establishments, instead too 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 FTP Comedy, Band Wreckers, Fourth Wall Comedy, and Heroine Addiction. Staff ensembles at the Dallas Comedy House include Roadside Couch and Victory Point. Others are ephemeral troupes of students spinning out of one of the many establishments in town—including Ad-Libs, Alternative Comedy Theater, Dallas Comedy House, and Locked Out Comedy—that teach improv comedy skills.
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. Actors, speakers, teachers—in general anymore wishing to be quicker on their feet and less self-conscious—also flock to these classes. The improv and comedy festivals—Dallas Comedy Festival, Big Sexy Weekend of Improv and the new Frisco Comedy Festival—bring in guest instructors.
Improv is good for comedy, good for theater and good for our brains. In the philosophy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, when in the improvisational flow we let go of the illusion of perfection and control that underlies almost all interaction, as well all the judgment that foments. The result is less self-induced stress. And perhaps a bit of bliss. Those times we create in the moment are when we are most alive.
Dallas Comedy House is 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, egged on by completely wacked out coaches: “OK, teams, get out there and make stuff up!” Victory Point, the house ensemble of experienced players, hosted the comedy jam.
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.
The players did a marvelous bit where a song snippet sung by a player had to be picked up by another with a new snippet that somehow related to the prior lyrics, and so on until someone stumbled. 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 stepped up and guided it back on track. While the amateurs tended to fall back on cartoonish characters, Victory Point was especially adept at crafting nuanced ones.
Amanda Austin, the shrewd mother hen of the Dallas Comedy House, wrestled spreadsheets and managed inventory while stepping 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. In level 1, he throws them up on a stage and helps them overcome stage fright and the tendency to space out. He shifts them from imitation to true improv. “Do something original. What do you have to offer?”
But in level 2 classes, by using improvisational games students start turning into actors. They lose the self-conscious state of talking heads on stiff bodies and become instead literally full-bodied performers. Rawley counsels students to act like people naturally do. They don’t simply stand and talk. They shuffle and fidget, look about and get distracted, pick up objects, chew on pens and guzzle water. Their voices show emotion and have dynamics, get faster and slower, louder and softer.
“At the Alterative Comedy Theater,” says Rawley, “we’re a theater, and I want the vast majority of what we do to stem from scene work.” So 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, 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. The goal, however it’s achieved, “is to do comedic theater that is improvised,” he says.
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.’”
Improv is also about learning to say yes, concludes Rawley, looking for ways to make things work rather than why they can’t, to take the idea that someone passes to you in improv, no matter how ludicrous, and take it somewhere. Improv is inherently optimistic.
Nationally, improv can span from the punchy, short-scene style of the iO West in Southern California, to the exquisite uncomfortability of New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Inbetween, The Second City in Chicago spins character and relationship driven improv that have longer set ups, but produces bigger belly laughs. Frank Caeti, who performed and taught at teh ambitious Dallas Comedy Fest, feels the Dallas improv scene has the depth and commitment of a young Second City.
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.
Though Second City is all about improv, with a direct pedigree from the theater games of Viola Spolin, the engine that powers it are the writers who craft improvised materials into permanent pieces. Like the Capitol Steps. Second City has mastered the art of malleable sketches and songs that can be customized to most any region or topical meme.
Experience the craft of writers Brooke Breit and Ed Furman and composer Matthew Loren Cohen in The Second City Does Dallas, running 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.
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.”
At a daylong audition this summer, Dallas Theater Center actors and area comedians performed improv exercises and scripted material. Liz Mikel, who showed her comic chops so well in DTC’s Dividing the Estate, was the stand out. “It’s an opportunity to do a new piece about Dallas with a world-renowned comedic acting company. I jumped at the opportunity. I hope to rise to the occasion artistically. I’ve never done improv before. We always want to be challenged and stretch our muscles. I’m excited about it.”
Fully improvised sets will follow many of the performances. As creative as DTC can be, turning the Wyly into a comedy club is a feat. But Mikel is not surprised: “Kevin Moriarty is always looking for new and innovative things for the theater center.”
So go ahead, do something original. Be in the moment. Improvise!