Oberlin Blogs

Showtime: Improv Saga, Part Two

February 26, 2010

Tess Yanisch ’13

Useful Glossary of Improv Terms:

- form: a particular setup or format of improv (the Sunshine Scouts does longform improv; more particularly, a "form" can be a structure, like "Monologue, A scene, B scene, C scene, A scene, B scene, C scene"). Form can also mean a particular show or run, as in, "That was a good form we just did."

- freeform: What the Scouts usually do. There is no set structure to the prov, no order in which scenes should come back up. It can have monologues, songs, scenes, descriptions, returning scenes, blended scenes, whatever, in whatever order we want. Creative anarchy that works.

- improv: short for "improvisation." Making funny stuff up on stage.

- prov: short for improv. Also may be used as a synonym for the second meaning of "form," e.g., "Yeah, that was a better prov than last practice." This meaning is used relatively rarely.

- provvers: improv people



On Saturday morning, all of the Sunshine Scouts woke up to cloudy light coming in through the giant windows in the giant room (see my last post for a description of the place where we stayed). We got dressed, washed up, and left munching bagels, still sleepy but excited to see what the day would bring.

The tournament was structured much as regionals were. We were performing second in the first round of three groups. There would be two other groups performing throughout the day. The winning team of each round would go on to the finals that night. If we made it to finals, we would stay at Ben and David's ballroom/home/indoor playground another night and go back to Oberlin Sunday morning.

The first team in our group was scheduled to perform at 11:00, but we had to be at StudioBE by 9:00 for a "meet and greet" session. (None of us were quite sure what that meant.) The snow had stopped and the sun was trying to come out, but it was still very cold. Fortunately, there is a parking garage right next to the studio, so we didn't have to walk very far at all.

When we got there, we were ushered into seats in front of the small stage. It struck me as a bit more formally organized than regionals had been: that time, we'd showed up in the early afternoon, a few hours before our performing slot, and we were told where to be when by some incredibly busy but incredibly friendly people. There hadn't been a "meet and greet" deal at all. I assume that the reasoning was roughly this: nationals, being a bigger deal, deserve more weighty handling. However, throughout the whole show, I felt--and I know many of the other Scouts agree--that there was something a bit overdone about the whole structure. But I'll get to that later.

The meet-and-greet basically consisted of sitting everyone down in the seats, introducing the people running the tournament, and explaining how the schedule was going to run. This was the tournament's third year, and its first year of being nationwide, so in a way we were the organizers' guinea pigs.

It was also the first time the CIT was being webcast--live!--a fact the organizers all seemed very excited about. They had some local improv personalities behind a table, looking like sportscasters, who served as commentators. They would introduce every show and make comments after it. Another group of people would interview the captain of every team after that team's performance.

Now here's the nitpicky bit. I very much appreciate the enthusiasm of everyone running the show, most of whom were donating their time. However, I agree with the other Scouts that the overall effect--of the "anchors," the pulsating music after each team's introduction, and the general hype surrounding it all--was a little too much like coverage of a sporting event. I mean, yes, it was a competition, but it was theater, too. When you're dealing with the arts, things are different. Color commentary after an audition for a play or orchestra, for instance, would be highly out-of-place and bordering on inappropriate. Improv is a little different, but, in my opinion, not much.

That said, I am from a pretentious, hoity-toity liberal arts college that treats its improv as theater first and goofiness second. We certainly seemed to have a different approach to it from the other teams there. But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself.

After the introduction/scheduling part was over, we went outside and crossed the street to a convenient alley we'd found last time. There, squinting in the now-blinding sun and trying not to slip on the ice, we held a spirited but quiet warm-up. (It had to be quiet so that we didn't scare the people whose apartments bordered the alley; a group of black-clad teenagers running around in a circle making bizarre onomatopoeic noises or shouting out word associations would be a trifle unnerving, don't you think?)

A little before 11:00, we trooped back inside and briefly ran through the order of events again, practicing going on and off stage with the cues. Avital, our captain, met with the person who would be interviewing her after the show. Then we waited. Waiting is always stressful. Some more word-association games and stretching kept us mentally and physically limber.

The first team, Second Nature, went on. They had come all the way from southern California (and, I imagine, had been utterly steamrollered by the weather change). We listened to their performance from backstage and kept ourselves psyched up. I went around naming things--an improv warm-up in which you wander around and point to things and say (or in this case just think) that they are something they are not. Pointing at a hat and saying, with deep, matter-of-fact conviction, "That's a ray gun," makes thinking on your feet easier in a scene. Don't ask me why; it just works.

The group from California finished; their captain was interviewed; the commentators mentioned some of their favorite lines; and then--we were on!

It was a good form, I think. We poked fun at "artsy" people a lot: there was a slam poetry scene and one in which a movement piece brought tough kids to tears. It was a little ironic, considering that we were probably the most artsy provvers there; as it turned out, some people didn't know quite what to make of us. I didn't fully realize it at the time, but the Scouts' style is apparently pretty unconventional. For instance, when Avital was interviewed, her interviewer didn't address favorite lines so much as, "Do you guys always perform barefoot?" (The answer: yes, yes we do. Or in socks.)

Regardless, we felt good about it, and enjoyed watching the third group's form. (Seriously Bent, of Suffolk University.) They were good. In fact, when their scores came in, it seemed they were better than we were: they had beaten us by four points.

This was a mild bummer, but it was alleviated by the fact that three of the five judges came up to us separately, later, and told us that they had given us full points, saying we were different--in a good way. "You're off the grid," one of them told us. An online comment posted on the live video feed echoed this, saying something to the effect of, "They may not always be hilarious, but what they do is beautiful." (All right. I can live with that.)

This apparent division of opinion was the subject of much discussion at the next practice after we got back to Oberlin. What it seems to boil down to is that, while we are funny people, we put storytelling ahead of going for laughs. Apparently, some people really loved that, and others didn't, or they just didn't get it. Isaac, one of my fellow Scouts, pointed out the distinction between "improv" and "improv comedy."

If people were expecting the funny first, yes, we would probably take them by surprise, and I can see how some of the judges might have marked us down for having more subtle humor. But maybe we're reading too much into this; maybe someone had real issues with our fluidity or teamwork, or they once knew real jerks who were Obies and had a grudge, or they thought we smelled. In any case, it's over and done. We're happy with our performance, and the experience was interesting and enlightening, and that's what counts.

One last note: as it turns out, we actually ended up scoring higher than one of the teams that made it into finals; we were just up against really good people in our round. The Powers that Be of the CIT have modified the rules to allow a "wild card" next year--the highest-scoring of the second-place teams will also be allowed into the final round. So they're working the bugs out of their system as time goes on. And who knows, if we're invited back next year, we might just win them over.

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