Rehearsals are usually about mastering movements — be they physical, emotional, musical, or linguistic — so that when the time comes to perform in front of an audience, everyone knows exactly how to fall in line with the script or sheet music. So it's strange to see a troupe of entertainers rehearse more than an hour's worth of material that will never see the light of day — and prep for a show whose direction will be decided by strangers at showtime.
Last week, nine of the dozen or so members of the Sick Puppies improv flexed their improvisatory muscles in an exclusive performance for a crowd of exactly four — two musicians, myself, and local comedian Joshua Geller — at the cozy Showtime Performing Arts Theater in Boca Raton's Royal Palm Place.
The rehearsal began with the Sick Puppies huddled in a circle like a sports team, their hands low to the ground and gradually rising, along with their voices, before crescendoing their appendages above their heads. Then a round of onomatopoeia commenced, with the actors passing words like "whiz" and "bonk" around the circle until one of them would disrupt the cycle with a ridiculous noise — all the better to shake the team from complacency.
Next came a game of "tag freeze" in which two actors would begin a scene about one topic. Then another actor would jump in to take someone's place — but as a totally different character, thus shaking up the skit and changing its direction. Thus, what had been an exotic dancer cleaning a floor suddenly became a snarling canine, crouched in the very same position. An invisible television became an invisible magic watermelon; a pantomimed mop became a fishing rod.
Simply put, expecting the unexpected is vital to this and any improv team's success.
"One thing we consider seriously is the integrity of not knowing what we're going to do that night," says team member Anthony Camilo.
"The word 'no' is a very easy reflex, and you have to teach yourself not to do it," adds Gerald Owens, a Sick Puppy with an extensive acting background. "The first time your partner surprises you, your first reaction will be, 'Where did that stupid idea come from?' And you'll want to deflect it. You suppress that reflex, treat that surprising idea as a gift, and build on it."
Sick Puppies bill themselves as "Boca Raton's only place for improvisation." Casey Casperson, a standup comedian turned improviser, launched the team in October after the dissolution of his previous troupe, Laughing Gas, and it has already sold out some of its monthly performances in the 125-seat Boca Raton theater. He estimates that his group is one of eight or nine improv troupes from Jupiter to Miami but is quick to point out that Sick Puppies' performances are about more than comedy.
"We're here to say, this isn't a drink fest," Casperson says. "There isn't a two-drink minimum. This is theater. We're actors that happen to improvise. It just happens that a lot of the time, it's funny. I would say that 85 percent of the show is funny, but there's 15 percent of the time where you capture moments that are so real that it's OK, because the audience isn't here to laugh all the time. They're here to be entertained. If a scene has to go somewhere real, it will for a moment. Once we expand on the scene and add to it, we can break it up."
The team usually starts its performances with suggestions from the audience — the "input" for a scene, to speak improv-ese. Most of its members prefer banal inputs, because they like the challenge of making something out of nothing. Contrary to its name, Sick Puppies' material is mostly clean; the actors will ignore sophomoric shouts of "dildo" and "poop," which they tend to get every show, but will gladly riff 45 minutes on "macaroni" or "opening a soda can."
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"If you care a lot about something that's really big, like something awful like cancer, that's a drama," Casperson says. "If you care that much about something like opening the last Pepsi on someone's shelf and you care as much about it as if you're dying, that's comedy. If we get a generic input, we may ask [the audience member] to specify. One thing people claim is that we plant people in the audience to give us our input, which is the best complement you can give us."
Each Sick Puppies show has a theme — the April 12 show will be based loosely on taxation, for tax season — though it may be abandoned by the midway point. Each show also starts with a different blueprint. Friday's will feature five-minute sets from standup comedian Sean Beagan, whose material will provide topics for the team's subsequent improvised sketches (at the rehearsal, Joshua Geller's material inspired riffs on inverted nipples, eating pasta while shirtless, and garbage-bag couture).
All of this helps the team shift the improv paradigm and keep every performance different in structure as well as content; live music is employed in many shows, and Casperson is flirting with the idea of integrating a mash-up artist or DJ or staging a long-form comic play. But the core will always be comedy gold, mined immediately and discarded just as quickly.
"It's amazing to get to do something different every night," says Tony Francis, the troupe's newest member. "The greatest thing for me is that all I have to worry about is helping my partner — making them look good. And then they make me look good. That's such a refreshing thing to come into. In your daily life, everyone's out for themselves. Everyone's got blinders on. When you come here, everyone's worried about you looking good."