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!
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."
"It takes practice, for sure," Jensen said. "However, once you know that that's going to happen, once you're in that frame of mind, every (idea) becomes golden to you."
Another important aspect of improv is detail. Since most of the skits are only three to five minutes long, actors can’t waste time establishing the who, what and where of the scene.
Jensen focuses on this aspect in his workshops. He said, if an actor were to open the skit with, “Hi, how are you?” it wouldn’t be nearly as effective as something like, “Brucie, honey, put your toys down and get out of the bathtub now!”
"A mother could say to her son, 'Brucie, how are you doing?' But when I use the detailed statement it tells us exactly what we're doing — exactly what our relationship is,” Jensen said. “So you have to identify those details, who you are, what your relationship is and what's going on in the scene. And you can do it in one sentence."
Although characters, scripts and scenes aren't established like in theatrical plays, it is just as important for the actors to stay true to their characters and the scene they’ve created. Since the entire scene is set through miming and the actors don't have costumes to distinguish their characters, it's even more important for them to be consistent.
"If I'm going to convince you that I am a pregnant woman, if I keep laughing at myself and (my teammates) are laughing at me, then it's hard to even put the audience in that world," Doussett said. "But if I stay in character, you're going to believe whatever I tell you to believe. If I come out of character ... it's like telling the audience, 'This is going to be stupid.' "
"The more bold you are with your statements, the more it catches people's attention," Jensen said. "(An actor) can be completely wrong, but if he believes it and he's bold with it, then it's awesome.”
One of the most important tricks to improv is staying natural.
"The truest form of improv-ing is not trying to be funny," Scoma said. "It's just trying to react how you normally would, but in a situation that's not your own, I guess you could say."
“Everyone looks to get the laugh, and if you're not getting the laughs sometimes you panic,” Doussett said. “But relaxing when no one is laughing, that's a hard skill to learn. But it's one that most very extremely talented improvisers can do and make something brilliant come from that."
Because improv is a natural, instinctive form of acting, Doussett said, a person doesn’t have to be naturally hilarious and outgoing to be successful. More than being funny, an actor needs to know how to relax and have trust in his or her ability.
“The thing is, people don't understand they improv every day, all day long,” Doussett said. “But they trust themselves, so they don't think it's hard. But once they put pressure on themselves to do comedy, that's when they feel they can't do it. Anyone can do improv. And everyone does.”
Mark Berrett, an actor and writer who has been with Comedy Sportz for 13 years, said he especially enjoys the camaraderie and collaboration that come from having different types of people onstage working together.
“Everybody brings something different to the show,” he said. “If you took your best player and had six of him, that would be a terrible show. But everybody brings something different. Just like in life, everybody has different talents that they bring and then if you work together with those talents and everybody works with their strengths, then you can really create something big and beautiful.”
Although the main purpose of improv is to entertain, the actors said they have learned valuable life lessons from the art form.
“The things you learn doing improv are things that translate into everything you do,” Berrett said. “Just being immediate, not being afraid to fail. And that’s one thing I’ve been trying to do lately. I’m a different person in improv, teaching and onstage, than I am in jobs and things. And then I realized I need to take these improv skills that I’ve been learning and apply them in my daily life, which I don’t do. I’m more timid in life. I’m afraid to fail in life. But onstage, I’m not.”
Jensen said realizing his talent has given him a way to find enjoyment in everyday life and share that with others. He once purposely created a funny situation with two strangers in a hospital elevator, and afterward a woman thanked him for it. She said she had received some terrible news in the hospital that day, and Jensen’s humor helped lighten her mood, he said.
“That's when I started realizing, you know, it’s kind of a gift,” he said. “If you have an ability by singing to make people feel better, shouldn’t you ought to sing? If you have the ability to play the piano and make people's lives less hard, shouldn't you do that? You really should. It’s like a responsibility almost.”
As Doussett said, the art of improv goes back to honesty — but not just honesty from the actor’s point of view.
"It's people at their most honest if we're all laughing at the same thing,” he said. “Doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, humble, prideful — we're all on the exact same page. And for me, that’s one of the most attractive things about people, seeing them be real and honest. And when you’re laughing, you can’t be worried about all the problems.”
Comedy Sportz and Off Broadway Theatre are both family-friendly comedy venues that specialize in improv shows. The shows involve a group of actors who perform improvised skits and compete in short games and challenges onstage, often with prompts and participation from the audience.
Along with housing Laughing Stock, the Off Broadway Theatre produces Broadway-style parody plays. More information about these two venues, including tickets and improv workshops, can be found on their websites, comedysportzutah.com and theobt.org.
Erica Palmer is a writer for the Mormon Times and Features department. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org