Oberlin Blogs

SUNSHINE SCOUTS!! (the improv group I keep mentioning.)

November 14, 2009

Tess Yanisch ’13

Last weekend, I got up early, ate some of my oatmeal (very handy stuff!), packed clothes and homework into my backpack, and ran over to a house a block over from Barnard. This was the home of Avital, (co)leader of the Sunshine Scouts, and nine of us (the tenth couldn't get out of work) were meeting there. After a few minutes of tracking down stray people, we divided into two cars and hit the road.

Where were we going? What were we up to? How long were we going to be in the cars on such a strangely gorgeous day? And what kind of music were we going to listen to en route?

Well, the answers, in a nutshell, are: Chicago, going to an invitational improv tournament, roughly five hours, and lots of pop and hip-hop, respectively.

Correlative questions: (1) Wait, what? and (2) How does a soundtrack/folk/rock/protest-music fan, such as our protagonist, handle that?

Answers, in reverse order: (2) Reasonably well--she receives her dose of pop for the next six months all at once, that's all; (1) The Chicago Improv Festival has invited college improv groups to compete for a short period of time--this was the third year and its first year of being a national thing. There were seventy teams total across the country, so this was a pretty big deal. It was also the first year the Scouts had been invited. We were going to be competing in the Midwestern region. There were twelve teams total, which would perform in three groups of four in the afternoon. The winner of each group of four would go on to the finals at 10:00 pm. The winner of the finals would go on to nationals sometime in February.

The trip out was full of silly car games--how many words can we think of that begin with "sp"? Spoon, sphinx, sphere, sphincter, spiral, splay, spoor, spore, sponge, splash, splat, spy, spatula . . . How many uses for a ball? Soccer, football, volleyball, foozball, ping-pong, polo, water polo, no they are not the same thing, polo is on horses and water polo is in the water, yes horses, no I'm serious, rugby, juggling, tennis, those ball-with-a-handle thing kids bounce on . . . Who am I? Are you male? -yes; fictional? -yes; written by an American? -no; written by a Brit? -yes; written by a woman? -yes; within last 100 years? -doubt it, but maybe . . . [much later] written by Charlotte? -no; written by Emily? -yes; are you emo and violent? -yes; are you Heathcliff? -yes!

Then there was a traffic jam coming into the city, which was a bit of a pain, but it let the second car catch up with us because it took a different route. We found a pretty reasonably-priced public parking garage about fifty feet away from StudioBE, the venue. It wasn't difficult to find; the large crowds of college students hanging out in front of it being improv people--silly, loud, engaging, joking, extroverted, off-beat--was pretty distinctive. (Plus we had an address, but, well, you know.)

We had decided to all dress in black and brought Halloween face paint so we could have "war paint." We mostly went for small things around our eyes--curvy lines or dots. Jonah, the piano player, had a bass clef curving around his face. We looked pretty imposing, or as much as nine Obies can...

In this account, I'm skipping over most of our warm-up exercises (carried out in an alley across the street from StudioBE in high-energy low voices so as not to scare the people living in the apartments around us) and the waiting around until we went.

Our performance was decent--not great by our standards, but good. They taped it, and if you want, you can watch it here.

Then we watched the group after us--The Unusual Suspects from the University of Minnesota-Morris, who did a truly great job of cranking out 25 minutes of short skits about potatoes. With that kind of thing, the true humor is in the fact that they just keep coming! My favorite section was when they got into pronunciation. A and B are arguing over "po-TAY-to" versus "po-TAH-to." Then C comes on, selling "POT-a-toes! Fresh POT-uh-toes!"

At the end of the round, they announced the winners: us! We were obviously very excited, but we also had about four hours to kill before the finals began. This is where some of the awkward stay-keyed-up-but-not-too-much waiting came in.

We met up with an ex-Scout, a graduate who lives in Chicago. He was actually the one I'd prank-called at my induction. (New Scouts get to improvise on the phone to old ones. I told him the 5,000 piglets he'd ordered were ready for shipment but we'd lost the address, a scheme pulled more or less directly from reading The Saddle Club when I was ten. I told my parents they weren't totally junk-books.) We all went to a pizza place and talked. Most of us were getting sleepy so we made a Starbucks run afterward. I got a grande mocha--sugar, warmth, chocolate, and caffeine is usually a winning combination for pumping me up if there is no adrenaline readily available in the form of a new Terry Pratchett book or Firefly.

We walked back to the garage and, while some people rested or took a nap, I called my parents to tell them I'd gotten to Chicago safely and fill them in on what was happening. They were very encouraging.

We went in to warm up at around 9:30. The three final teams had very different styles of improv, we'd been told, and the judges were looking forward to it: it would mean seeing how well each group did in their own field rather than "X understood their long-form better than Y did." We were going against the Improv Mafia from Illinois State University, who won last year, and a group called The Founders from (I think) the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Improv Mafia was going first, then us, then the Founders.

What can I say? The Improv Mafia was amazing. Watching them at the beginning, I could only think, "This is the kind of stuff that, this time last year, I'd be thinking, 'I'd love to be in on this.' Except that now--I am." We, the Sunshine Scouts, had been trying very hard to get ourselves energized, woken up, psyched. The Mafia was so high-energy and there was so much sheer fun in what they were doing--and they were so good at it--it was the best thing that could have happened to us. (You can watch them here.

Rather than be overwhelmed, we were all pumped, impressed, delighted. We had to duck backstage partway through their act to get ready, and we were all thrilled. I realized in retrospect that this is a pretty impressive thing: I genuinely don't think any of us felt threatened or scared. We appreciated what they were doing, admired them, and we finally felt awake and ready to go out and play. Because playing, in the end, is what we do. It's about fun, and it is fun. I remember people grinning, excited, nervous, and I remember saying something along the lines of, "We're just gonna go out there and do our best and see if we can do half as well as that!"

Finally, we were all lined up inside the curtain, ready to jump out and scream and then act. We got our cue and did so. Then Avital asked the audience for a suggestion (which we would use to kick-start our opening monologue). Someone said "Galaxy," Avital and Tim left the stage, and there was a moment's pause. I reflected on what the word "galaxy" had triggered in me.

Please remember that I'm jumped up on mocha (coffee/sugar/chocolate), adrenaline, and laughter right now . . .

Anyway, the video is right here if you want to see our final performance.

After we left the stage and recovered our bearing somewhat--feeling confident in our performance, that we did well and gave a good showing--we slipped out into the audience to watch the Founders. They were good, but we found them, well, a bit coarse, I guess; their jokes came back to a lot of stereotypes and frankly could be offensive. (They did have some pretty funny Yukon gold-miner characters in there, though.)

So we had the Improv Mafia, which had done several short sections of different forms; us, with our very narrative, artistic long-form (we really like our improv as performance art, apparently); and the Founders, who had perhaps a more traditional/old-fashioned take on improv. I thought we'd done better than the Founders--content aside, their form was a little sloppy--but better than the Mafia? Not sure....

In all the earlier rounds, the judges had come out with their ratings pretty much instantaneously. In this one, we were asked to have a dance party while they deliberated. So, nervously excited, we all flooded the stage and danced for one song...

Then the announcers came back onstage and we went back to our seats. They told everyone--performers and audience--that each judge could give out 16 points, for a total of 48 points per group (three judges). There had been a spread of exactly 1.5 points between all three groups. (Dropped jaws, nervous glances. The tension mounts.)

Furthermore, the second and third place teams had been tied and had to be resolved by some other method I could not remember. This was necessary because all the second-place teams--one from each region of the country--have a chance of going to nationals as a wild card, while third-place teams don't. The videos, they told us, will be placed online and whichever second-place team gets the most votes will get to go on.

More glances, slight squeals, intent stares.

"In third place--the Founders!" (So my guess was right. Respectful clapping and some unbridled cheers. We're like a shaken soda in here, just waiting to burst out.)

"In second place . . . and remember, the second place troupe still has a chance of going on to nationals . . ."

(Yesyesyes, we know, we know!!)

"In second place . . . The Improv Mafia!"


That was all that was necessary, really. Telling us that we'd won--which they did, a minute later--was icing on the cake. We knew. If the Improv Mafia was in second, the process of elimination was pretty damn easy. And we were pretty damn excited about it. I distinctly remember being part of a group hug in which I experimentally took both feet off the ground. No problem. The other three or four people held me up without even noticing. I did feel a bit surprised--I really had had no idea whether it would be the Mafia or us--but I was so excited! And sportsmanship is different in improv--I think they understood we weren't gloating. We were happy! And expressive!

We trouped out onto the stage to receive the plaque telling us we were Chicago Improv Tournament Midwest Regional Champions and they took a photo of us. We were all cheering when they took it, so we look possessed or in pain, but we were glorying in our moment of triumph.

After that, we went backstage again. I am an introvert and not usually prone to jumping around screaming and hugging people, but this--this was almost like triumph in Knowledge Bowl! Except with acting and more funniness! It was a wonderful feeling. It gave me the lift to become very extroverted, to be frank. I hugged a number of the Improv Mafia folks and told them, honestly, that I thought they'd win and I really loved their performance. Around me, many of the other Scouts were doing the same. They were great; told us all we were amazing and we deserved it, yadda yadda yadda. Nice people. So if any of you, dear readers, can figure out how to vote on that video site, I urge you to vote for them.

We spent the night in a youth hostel in Chicago and drove back on Sunday. I won't go into detail about that, partly because it wasn't very eventful, but mostly because this entry is really long enough!

Responses to this Entry

... I learned today that the Sunshine Scouts actually have our own official blog. (How about that.) It's http://sunshinescouts.blogspot.com if you're interested.

Posted by: Tess on November 15, 2009 7:40 PM

Yo! Who'd you guys meet up with in Chicago? I love the Scouts alums :D

Also, congrats! And I've been watching the winning sketch as I was reading your post, since it's been floating about the Twittersphere for the last few days... delightful!


Posted by: Ma'ayan on November 15, 2009 10:24 PM

Ah! I heard about this earlier. This is awesome news to hear (:
Great job/entry!

Posted by: Karl on November 17, 2009 3:26 AM

Thanks, guys!

@ Ma'ayan: Ben came and watched us (he was the one I'd prank-called) and the former pianist--I think his name was Julien, although I was in my "aaaaugh sleepy" phase at the time so I could be wrong--met us all for pizza. They were a lot of fun.

Posted by: Tess on November 17, 2009 9:58 AM

Thank you for writing this, Tess. I wish I could have been there...

... and CONGRATULATIONS again!!


Rule Number One: you're never done.

Posted by: Ian Axness on November 19, 2009 9:12 PM

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