Hilarity and humanity collide at the Santa Cruz Improv Fest
For those with a basic familiarity of improvisational theater, the words "improv" and "comedy" may be so closely related as to be virtually synonymous. Due in large part to the success of the television program Whose Line is it Anyway? and the ComedySportz live improv franchise, the theater genre is commonly associated with short-form gag-sprees, chock full of puns and one-liners.
To be sure, laughter is an integral part of improv. However, the art form—yes, art form—is more than a one-trick pony, according to Karen Menehan, the local woman who has resurrected the Santa Cruz Improv Fest after several years of hibernation.
With the help of a "very supportive and robust" local improv community, Menehan aims to remind Santa Cruzans that improv, while a potential laugh-riot, can also be just as powerful a tool for exploring the human condition as traditional, scripted theater—if not more so.
The Santa Cruz Improv Fest, an annual event for the better part of the aughts, has lain dormant in recent years. And so Menehan—of local improv troupe Six Wheel Drive—decided to do something about it.
"This is just a really good opportunity for people in Santa Cruz to get an idea of how robust the improv community is," she says, reflecting on what motivated her to reorganize the festival.
Menehan had performed in the former incarnation of the Santa Cruz Improv Fest as a member of The Funatics! troupe. Remembering the great times she had, as well as the enthusiastic reception of local audiences, Menehan contacted a handful of local improv troupes—both from Santa Cruz and from the Bay Area—and secured the Broadway Playhouse for eight nights this month.
Beginning May 4, and running for four consecutive Friday and Saturday nights throughout the month, the Santa Cruz Improv Fest will live once again.
Most of this year's performers are local, Menehan says. There is Six Wheel Drive (her troupe), Um... Gee... Um..., Loose Cannon Theater, The Funatics!, You Had To Be There, and BLONDE. In addition to the six local troupes, the festival will also feature the San Jose chapter of ComedySportz, and, hailing from San Francisco, the pulp novel-influenced True Fiction Magazine.
“I’m excited to be a part of the Improv Festival," says Davis Banta of You Had To Be There.
Banta always enjoys performing, but the festival is more than a simple performance, he notes. It is a celebration of the strength of the local improv scene. "Santa Cruz is a very creative community," Banta says. "People here like to explore things and learn."
And improv is a great way for people to do just that. For Banta, who also works in traditional scripted theater, improv has helped him sharpen his ad lib abilities, which can be useful when something unexpected happens on-stage during a production.
The style of performance practiced by You Had To Be There and ComedySportz—lighthearted, short-form games, where performers may be required to speak in song titles or begin each sentence with a different letter of the alphabet—is fast-paced, and when executed well, a whole lot of fun for the audience. But improv is about more than stringing together a series of one-liners.
"People like to be in touch with their feelings, and improv is a tool that opens a lot of doors in that regard, in that it forces you to be in the moment in a very pure way," Banta says, noting that a number of the troupes at this year's Improv Fest will be doing longer-form, dramatic improvisation.
"If you come with the notion that you are going to see drop-dead funny stuff, you're going to be disappointed," says Raphael Hebert, another member of Six Wheel Drive. It is common for people to be surprised when seeing Six Wheel Drive for the first time, Hebert says. "Their initial reaction will be, 'Well, that wasn't really that funny.'" However, ultimately "a lot of people walk away pleasantly surprised" that his troupe has been able to construct an entire world, with many characters and multiple plot points—replete with drama and conflict and humor—and wrap all the loose ends by the conclusion of the performance, which may last as long as 90 minutes.
Those who are unfamiliar with the type of improvisational performance done by Six Wheel Drive may inaccurately assume that the form cannot possibly achieve the level of pathos and catharsis evoked by a traditional scripted play. However, both Hebert and Menehan contend that, in some ways, improv has the potential to bring out performances that are more authentic and moving than any scripted performance.
That's because the character is on the spot, living in the moment. Aside from the audience looking on, and the fact that the performer is acting out a fictional scenario, the emotions are often very real, and unlike a method actor working on a scripted scene, those emotions are all rushing through the improviser’s mind in real time. By way of example, Hebert recalls a scene where he was playing an undercover detective posing as a gang member and staring down the barrel of a gun at a rival gang member he was expected to shoot.
Not only did his character in the performance not expect to be put in such a position, Hebert hadn't seen the situation coming either. "As an actor, it took me by surprise," he remembers, "and that surprise came through the character as an emotional response."
Daniel Hughes, of the recently formed Santa Cruz improv troupe BLONDE, seconds Hebert. His two-person outfit also practices long-form improv. Because BLONDE is a male-female duo, their performances often end up exploring the dynamics of romantic relationships—unlike Six Wheel Drive, which bases all of its scenes around the framework of the epic hero's journey.
Nonetheless, Hughes says he often finds himself surprised by the turns he and partner Mo Kremer end up taking on-stage. "I think you see an element of reality that you just cannot accomplish through scripted work," Hughes says. "Because it's in the moment."
For Hughes that means having "no awareness of anything that has happened before this or after this. The only thing you have on your mind is what is happening now."
He and Kremer talk over each other, interrupt each other and don't have a clue what the other person is going to say before they say it. And whether the scene is dramatic, comedic or somewhere in between, there is something very visceral and edgy about not knowing what comes next.
"That," Hughes says of improv, "is what people come to see."
The Santa Cruz Improv Fest runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, May 4-May 26, at The Broadway Playhouse, 526 Broadway, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15-18. For more information, call 338-3434. Visit brownpapertickets.com.
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