The Oberlin Stories Project

On the improv scene at Oberlin

Corina Bardoff ’07

“[It] is so accepting and completely full of fantastically talented and inventive people who want nothing more than to “yes” what you give them.”

Four people laughing

It’s five a.m. on a chilly Sunday morning in April, and we’ve been awake for twenty-one hours straight -- since 8 a.m. the previous day. We’re “backstage” (in the hallway near the pool room) at the Cat In the Cream, shaking out nervous, sleep-deprived energy. “Check your flies,” Lee tells us. Lee tells us this before every show. The reminder has yet to save anyone from going onstage with their fly open, but it is nonetheless appreciated. We listen at the door for someone from The Sunshine Scouts (Oberlin’s other improv troupe) to announce our name, so we can all rush on stage.

The audience is composed of the Sunshine Scouts (who have already performed that night, since they got an earlier, better slot in the lottery), members of college improv troupes from around the Midwest, and professional improvisers from Chicago, New York, and Austin. Everyone in the room has been talking, thinking, and doing improv since 9 a.m. the previous day.

This is the Oberlin College Improv Conference, an annual event organized by Oberlin students. We brings professional improvisers to Oberlin to teach workshops ("Get to the Point,” “Musical Improv,” and “Harold Inside the Matrix,” for example) and perform, the likes of which draws other college troupes from around the region to spend a sleepless weekend on our campus.

The event that brings all us sleepy improvisers to the Cat In The Cream this cold night/morning, is Improv ‘Til We’re Dead, in which each attending improv troupe performs one after another in half-hour sets, until every single group has performed. How many Harolds can one sit through in one night? (A ‘Harold’ being the common kind of scene-based form.)

Someone from the Sunshine Scouts yells “Primitive Streak!” (that’s us), we run on stage, pretend we’re not tired, and ask for a suggestion.

I’m really shy. I sit by myself at parties in agony, and probably won’t call you unless you are one of my closest closest friends. I did some theater in high school and freshman year at Oberlin, but I’m no actress, really. It still baffles me how I was accepted into an improv troupe at all, how I was able to get on stage in the Cat so full that every inch of floor space was taken up by people sitting, how I became a co-director of Primitive Streak (my co-director being Lee, who always reminded us about our flies, and who taught me just about everything I know about improv), and how I could intrepidly enter workshops filled with no one I knew and led by professionals from Second City and UCB, and improvise confidently and committedly.

The improv scene at Oberlin is so accepting, and completely full of fantastically talented and inventive people who want nothing more than to “yes” what you give them.

“Argyle!” “Alphabet soup!” “Epilepsy!” “Happy Birthday, Mister President!” yells the audience. Lee selects “Argyle,” we all step back, two of us jump out on stage, and we start a scene.

During my four years at Oberlin, Primitive Streak gave me six hours a week of the most supportive and energizing environment I’ve known. It gave me some great parties (small ones, I can handle those), informed my writing (I’m a creative writer), and has given me the secret knowledge of those mystically powerful words, “Yes! and...”