By Annette Hinkle
OK, here’s the set up – you’re traveling in Rome with a group of tourists from the Midwest. Everyone on stage takes turns describing the city sights, but there’s a catch —the first word of each successive sentence must start with the next letter of the alphabet.
“A” is first – now go!
This is the type of quick-draw exercise that is de rigueur for improvisational performers. While for an audience, witnessing these in the moment on-stage antics can be hilarious, for the actors, taking a risk and plunging head first into the unknown in front of total strangers can not only be challenging and at times, terrifying — it can also be exhilarating.
A group of up and coming local improv artists will be putting their new found skills to the test this Friday, April 1 in (appropriately enough) “The April Fools,” an evening of improv and stand-up comedy offered as part of the HITFest Spring Fling series of events at the Bridgehampton Community House.
Josh Perl is the founder of HITFest (Hamptons Independent Theatre Festival), a new incarnation of The Naked Stage which for several years has hosted play readings at Guild Hall. For much of March and April, HITFest is offering a wide range of theatrical events at The Bridge, the black box theater created a year ago on the stage of the community house for a Naked Stage festival. Perl also teaches, and the improv performers in this Friday’s show (Nan French, Karen Hochstedler, Ellen Paul, Jeff Millman, Bobby Priel, Rosalind Brenner and Sima Freierman) are all students who have taken part in his “Fun & Gains” improv class in recent months. Following their performance, professional stand up comedians from around Long Island will take the stage.
“These are people who took my class and wanted to show what they learned,” says Perl of the improv troupe.
The show will feature the performers taking part in several of the theater games they practiced in Perl’s class. But of course, improv is fluid and every situation is different — so it will be up to the performers and the audience to ultimately decide in what direction the evening will go.
“It really is a lot of fun to watch people wrestle with a challenge,” says Perl.
Among the improv games that will be offered are the alphabet scene (illustrated above), emotional symphony in which each character is assigned a different emotion by the audience and “plays” it like an instrument when directed by a conductor, know it all which requires actors to state truths about a topic, and the fast paced Zip Zap Zoop.
Perl explains that in this game, performers stand in a circle and one starts the action by turning to his or her neighbor and saying “zip.” The word zip keeps traveling around the circle in the same direction until someone says zap, then the flow reverses. If a zoop is thrown in, it travels directly across the circle to the person opposite..
“We’ll play one or two rounds – and then invite an audience member to try a round.”
While improv may seem like it’s just a lot of fun and games, Perl stresses the benefits that good improvisational skills can bring to other aspects of performing.
“One of the things I’ve learned after running Naked Stage for the last 10 years, is that the ability to improvise really helps you in the rehearsal, performance and particularly the reading process,” he says. “When you memorize a script, you go beyond that fresh take. But if you only have a couple of rehearsals, you have to improvise based on how the pervious line is delivered. People who are good at improv tend to be good at readings.”
But it’s not always true that good actors are also good at improv adds Perl. Improv can run counterintuitive to the instincts of some actors, particularly if they are focused on control. Improv is not about control, but rather letting go of control. It’s also not about trying to be funny. Instead, imrpov is really focused on getting actors to commit fully to choices that are made in a scene and working through them to get to the truth of the matter at hand.
“You have to be there in the moment, and be open to anything,” says Perl who points to the honesty of Nan French who, when taking part in an exercise recently in which characters shared truths about a subject, in this case shoes, offered the word “painful.”
“The eight other people busted out laughing,” recalls Perl. “It was her truth with shoes. That’s the same thing you’re looking for in a role as an actor – you want to find the truth.”
Having an instinct for getting to the truth is one thing, but catching on to the subtleties of humor and timing is something else. So how does one go about teaching the art of improv?
“I don’t think there is such a thing as teaching,” confides Perl. “You make an offering and someone takes it. It’s about commitment, being flexible, not thinking before or after, but being in the moment. Then we just practice. We talk about how that felt, what did people see, what can we do better next time.”
“The theater people in the workshop really felt this sense of release and calm after doing the class, because the world demands many things of you during the day,” he adds. “Then you enter this private space where the only obligation is to yourself.”
For Nan French, who had never done anything theatrical prior to Perl’s improv class, the experience has been “a lot of fun.”
“You have to be present,” she says. “When you’re fully in the moment you can’t think about the dishes at home.”
Following the improv troupe’s performance on Friday, Dr. Harry Freedman, Robert Coffi and Marcus Johnson, who perform comedy throughout Long Island, will take the stage to offer their stand-up routines. Johnson in particular, who will close out the show, has a soft spot for improv. About four years ago, he and Perl were both members of “Just Say Yes,” an East End based improv troupe that performed several shows in the area. His improv experience has become ingrained in his stand-up style.
“In my act I speak with the audience,” says Johnson. “I create some material on the spot. That’s how important improv is. Many times the audience offers something up during stand up that’s very funny. And if you can work that into your act, it makes it that much funnier.”
“The April Fools,” a night of stand up and improv comedy begins at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 1 2011 as part of the HITFest Spring Fling at the Bridgehampton Community House, 2357 Montauk Highway. Admission is $10. Call 338-7226 for details.