The Sick Puppies, Top left to right: Gerald Owens, Tony Francis, Tom Neile, Casey Casperson. Middle left to right: Michelle Domb, Stephon Duncan, Tamara Jones, Aniela McGuinness. Bottom: Ilana Isaacson.
Improv is often perceived as a bit of a shtick. The performers get up onstage with little or no plan and just... go. But it's actually a lot more work than that. It's hard enough for a cast to get their act together when they're rehearsing lines and have character motivation, costumes, and a set. An improv troupe has to be a well-oiled performance machine that can follow one another down rabbit holes and jump in when someone else blanks.
In a world that is always "on," with nearly scriptless shows receiving much acclaim, like The Office, Parks and Rec, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's time for improv to take its rightful place in the cultural Zeitgeist, and Sick Puppies Comedy Troupe is here to lead the way.
"In everyday life, we're pretty boring. We put on the turn signals, we look both ways, but what if you just crossed the street with a blindfold on? In real life you would die, but on the stage, it's safe, and that's what's we do." Casey Casperson, the driving force behind the Sick Puppies, explains.
He's worked as a comic for 15 years, and for the past five, he's been focusing on improv. He formerly belonged to Laughing Gas, the longest-running improv troupe in South Florida, led by a guy named Gerald Owens, a man Casperson considers the grandpa of South Florida improv and who is also in the Sick Puppies.
Casperson clearly has a deep love for improvisation. In a way, he thinks it's theater in its purest form.
"It's the emotional connection between the actors on the stage and that emotional connection is what the audience is looking for. So the secret is that the characters in the piece are really committed to what is happening. If they are in love with each other, they are really in love with each other. If they hate each other, they really hate each other," says Casperson. "The audience knows that it's coming off the top of their heads, so if you can really sell it like it's the best thing since sliced bread, the audience loves it. When it works, the audience goes crazy. I've never seen anything rev up a crowd like when everything is in sync in improv."
While there are no scripts in the traditional sense, it isn't completely freeform either.
"It's not so much the word tracks that we prep; it's the formula that we prepare. We get used to rhyming things, and you already know what the beat of the music is, and you just hope that the words come out when they're supposed to."
About three years ago, he started teaching improv to others -- and not just actors and comedians. He does professional training and has worked with Fortune 500 companies. Through this format, he teaches things like how to overcome rejections, learning how to be more likable, building rapport, finding a common level agreement, and using word association to drive the conversation back to where you want it. The same methods that make an improv troupe instinctively hilarious have helped salespeople sell.
"It's on the rise nationally because the main people in Hollywood and New York that are getting work and attention are improv actors -- all of your SNL cast, all the funny people you see on TV right now, the entire cast of The Office, Parks and Rec, and Up All Night. Pretty much everything you see on television has been derived from an improv scene that people taped and wrote a sketch and built a sitcom from. You really have to know improv to be a successful screen actor, especially comedic."
So, while this weekend's show will be a fine example of this art at its very best, certain preparations are in place. Sure, it's called a Tale of Two Patricks and it will be St. Patty's Day-themed, but beyond that?
"I don't know. The audience will tell us when they show up. We'll do a couple of Irish-themed pieces, and if the audience wants to keep it Irish-themed, it will stay Irish-themed. One thing we will do is tell a story, but the story can only be told one word at a time traded between two people in three minutes."
The show itself will serve as a fundraiser for Casperson's other passion, dogs. "We will offer a Humane Seat -- the Humane Seat is a $100 ticket for two tickets -- all $100 goes to the Tri-County Humane Society. You can sit anywhere you want. If you want, you can sit on the stage, and we'll treat you like royalty. If you don't like something, we'll change it."
They're also debating having an inhumane seat. It will be free, but it will cost the occupant constant abuse and humiliation over the course of the evening. "The Humane Seat is what I'm trying to focus on; it's tongue-in-cheek, of course, but my passion is dogs, and it's our way to give back to the community."
Casperson says that one of the benefits of improv is that if you go to the opening on March 8 and love it, you can come back on March 9 and be "completely re-entertained" with a new, original show.
Rebecca McBane is the arts and culture/food editor for New Times Broward-Palm Beach. She began her journalism career at the Sun Sentinel's community newspaper offshoot, Forum Publishing Group, where she worked as the editorial assistant and wrote monthly features as well as the weekly library and literature column, "Shelf Life." After a brief stint bumming around London's East End (for no conceivable reason, according to her poor mother), she returned to real life and South Florida to start at New Times as the editorial assistant in 2009. A native Floridian, Rebecca avoids the sun and beach at all costs and can most often be found in a well-air-conditioned space with the glow of a laptop on her face.