It takes a lot of practice to be spontaneous. That's the first thing you learn when you're in a good improvisational comedy show. Improv isn't just acting. It's a sport, with its own skill sets and formal vocabularies. It takes a lot of training to make improv look so sweetly natural. The improv troupe Mod 27 makes it look easy.
In its twice-monthly shows at Lake Worth's Klein Dance Studio (through October 15), Mod 27 explores improv's long form -- one long play that begins with a single audience suggestion. It all starts with the simple, low-overhead staging of five actors and some plastic patio chairs. On the recent evening when I caught their show, the catalytic audience query was, "What's a Christmas gift you never liked?" Underwear? OK. With that giggle-worthy word, Mod 27's Dave Hyland, Kat Kiernan, Tom O'Donnell, Jeff Rifenberg, and Dustin Sharpe rolled, beginning with a prompt monologue by Kiernan about the yellow underwear she got for Christmas as a kid.
What you experience for the next 90 minutes is an open faucet, leaking the actors' freethinking brains. As strangers to the troupe, you can't know what's in store for you, where scenes will come from or go, or what latent memories and acting devices will be released. At points, you witness true inspiration. Among many at this performance was a funny bit in which Rifenberg gets stoned and talks to the floor. Another, about two guys (or girls) in a Manhattan apartment -- one in love with the other -- had moments that made for moving drama, belying your assumption that improv is only about laughs.
While colleagues perform, the off-stage actors observe and telegraph cues back and forth in search of a scene. It's tag-team acting, and when one person standing on the side decides to jump in, scenes can take an entirely new direction. "Come in with a strong character and the scene will take care of itself," O'Donnell told me later.
Sometimes things move along and don't make sense, but they still make for great scenes. In one case that night, a bit by Sharpe and Hyland about tattooing (I won't elaborate, but trust me) was out of left field, but it was great absurdist theater (think Sammy Beckett). Even when scenes don't quite gel, they work, because, when the audience is on board, the fun can come from wondering about how some withering encounter will meet its own deserved end or will be transformed into something totally fly.
One thing about improv that isn't always fully conveyed is how much it's a reflection of what we all do everyday with our friends. We're all improv actors, tapping into stores of imagination as well as unique, insider characters that only we know within our group -- spontaneous creations that fuel the short plays we perform in our living rooms, offices, and pubs. Everybody's a role player. The fact that Mod 27's seed suggestion might be about underwear is as incidental to what happens for the next 90 minutes as is the seed of any late-night conversation of your own posse, during which you move from subject to subject through dozens of reveries.
At its best, good improv, like that of Mod 27, has the narrative drive of a good basketball or football game -- from the initial awkwardness of warming up (and getting the audience on board) to reaching a cruising speed to finally slowing down near the show's end from the weariness of both self-exploration and performance. It's that central section, when everything is tight, that thrills, as does this troupe's obvious chemistry, crafted from a collaboration of more than three years. Last year, Mod 27 performed at the 2004 Miami Improv Festival, the 2004 Toronto International Improv Festival, and the Out of Bound Improv Festival Par 3 in Austin. The recent newsflash is that the group has been selected to perform in July's seventh-annual Del Close Improv Marathon in New York City.
So what else do you need to know, eh, before you decide to truck to Lake Worth? Maybe the same kinds of facts that made me e-mail Mod 27 a questionnaire about their experience. Here are some of their replies:
Who is your biggest influence? Dave Hyland replied with Robin Williams and Monty Python: "They both push the envelope and are never afraid to fail. As soon as you worry about being funny, you become significantly less funny."
Favorite scenes or characters to play? Kiernan likes physical comedy ("It gives me the opportunity to do a little more than depend on words"), and Sharpe likes to play silent characters, like one he recalls who just ate apples without saying a word: "Of course, I pulled the apples from my rectum, but hey, it was in the moment."
Most embarrassing scene performed? O'Donnell and Rifenberg both point to monologues about their first sexual experiences (yes, it seems, improv actors do get laid). Writes Rifenberg, "Granted, it was a damn good monologue and it came from the heart. But, boy, was I embarrassed."
All five agree that one question they wish people wouldn't ask is, "So, what do you do, standup comedy or something?" If you want to know why you shouldn't ask this question, hit their performance and see how wide the chasm is between a guy on a stage talking about nothing and the complex, unpredictable performances Mod 27 puts on.
The popularity of improv's best-known manifestation -- television's Whose Line Is It Anyway -- is double-edged. On one hand, Whose Line provides handy reference for the entire improv-industrial complex. But at the same time, the TV show, with its same McImprov games week after week (funny as they are), sets up audience expectations for a comforting repetition of forms in a genre that is, hello, all about lack of repetition. A diet of too much McImprov may be harmful to the health of your receptiveness. At its heart, the best improv is, like politics, live and local. It's sustained by inspired exhibitionists like the Mod 27 five being excited to perform singular evenings in a small Lake Worth dance studio or in all the other back rooms where talented improv troupes meet.
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