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The art of improv: Creating something funny out of nothing

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 6:53 p.m. MDT

Eric Jensen, right, co-founder and artistic director at the Off-Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City, performs an improv skit with three fellow actors. Jensen said the theater started featuring improv as a way to fill the empty stage between shows, and found that the audience loved it.

Provided by Eric Jensen

On a typical weeknight in downtown Provo, a group of actors meets onstage for practice in a building wedged between a few delis and a Japanese sushi shop.

But instead of going over lines, they spend most of their time shouting out random and seemingly unrelated sentences.

The scorpions have escaped!

Biking down the Niagara!

Bibbity-bibbity-bop!

For the actors at Comedy Sportz, this strange rehearsal is completely normal. They specialize in "improv" comedy, a comedic form of acting where they perform in groups and make up the skits on the spot. Although they enter the stage with no lines, costumes or props, there is a technique to what improv actors do.

"The art of improv is creating something brilliant, funny and honest from nothing," said Curt Doussett, owner of Provo's Comedy Sportz improv venue. Started 15 years ago by his wife, Tonia, Provo’s Comedy Sportz is one of 34 franchises across the nation and is often ranked in the top three nationwide, according to Doussett.

Doussett, an actor and musician, began practicing improv to help him in his acting career. He has stuck with it ever since, taking regular improv classes in Los Angeles and bringing everything he learns back to his troupe in Provo.

"There are several things that draw me to improv," he said. "One is how real, honest and organic it is. It's very fleeting and disposable, meaning we do comedy onstage that is some of the most brilliant stuff I have ever seen, and it will never be replicated. It's not going to get stale like stand-up does. … We can tell jokes that are funnier than what stand-up people craft for months, and we can do it different every single week. As long as we're honest and truthful, the comedy will never stop coming.”

Improv is a unique form of acting because every show is just that: unique. Eric Jensen, artistic director and co-founder of the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City, likened it to an inside joke shared by the actors and the entire audience.

"The best thing about it is that it gives you a rush that you don’t normally have when you’re doing just a play, because you know this has never happened before," Jensen said. "And the audience knows that this has never happened before. And so they’re witnessing what is called ‘a happening.’ This is the one and only time that this thing that's going on right now is going to happen for us. And it's an inside joke. It's something that we're all in on, all 200 of us, tonight.”

The Off Broadway Theatre is home to the improv comedy troupe Laughing Stock. Jensen said he and his colleagues never intended to do improv shows when they opened the theater in 1994. However, they found their venue sitting empty for weeks at a time between plays, and one of his colleagues suggested improv as a way to fill the stage and make some extra money. Though Jensen was doubtful at first, they soon found that there was a demand for improv and that audiences loved it.

Though improv may seem random and free of structure, there are some ground rules that a successful actor must follow. One of the most important rules is to never deny a fellow actor. Instead, they use the “Yes, and …” principle, accepting each other’s information and adding to it.

Dan Scoma, who has been with Comedy Sportz for two years, said this can be one of the most difficult adjustments for a new improv actor. An actor may go into a skit with an idea of who his or her character is and what is going to happen, and then his or her partner can suddenly throw out something completely different.

"Not denying people is a huge one for improv," Scoma said. "You just have to yield. … So he'll say like, 'Oh, my crops are dying! What are we going to do?' And I'll just have to drop everything I just thought of and go with that."

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