By Annette Hinkle
Ask anyone who’s done it. Improv is more than about just being funny. It’s also about thinking on your feet and developing personas that get to the heart of the human psyche.
But most importantly, it’s about being a team player.
No one knows that better than the 11 members of The Viola Question, a student improv troupe from Yale University.
The Viola Question (or VQ as they’re familiarly known) is one of four such troupes at Yale, and like many of Yale’s theatrical and musical groups, the student members function not only as performers, but take on the role of managing and directing the troupe as well.
This weekend, The Viola Question will be in Sag Harbor to perform at the Bay Street Theatre. Though the troupe is planning larger tours over Yale’s winter and spring breaks, this year’s director, junior Joel Sircus, notes the weekend’s one-shot performance is more about troupe members settling into a rhythm. With freshmen just starting their college (and improv) career and seniors whose job it is to pass institutional knowledge on to the underclassmen, bonding is important business. It’s also fun.
“The troupe is made up of five girls and six guys. We like hanging out with each other and it’s nice to get a chance to spend a couple days out of New Haven,” explains Sircus. “It’s also nice for the freshmen to experience a little of what it’s like to tour — before they commit. It also helps us generate a bit of revenue to give us a little cash flow before the tour.”
“We get outside the Yale bubble and 11 people all go away and turn off their cell phones,” he adds. “It’s this odd experience you don’t get to have in college — spend a large amount of time with a small group of people.”
Getting to know — and more importantly, trust — one another is key to a successful troupe, particularly one that has performers coming and going every fall. Sircus explains that because members of The VQ come from wide and varying backgrounds, it’s important they find their own way into improv as an art form.
“What I’ve noticed is what makes for a successful run of shows is a lot of people with a diverse sense of humor,” says Sircus. “Some people come with a strong theater background and that’s what they fall back on. They’re not necessarily funny, but good at telling a story with physicality, moving a plot forward and justifying it.”
“Myself, I’ve never done theater before trying out for The VQ,” adds Sircus. “On a whim I auditioned and was lucky to get in. For the first year it was trial by fire — to use your hands to establish physical space, to face the audience and project, to think on your feet. I was fine being silly, goofy and whacky, but not good at embodying a character that was not my own.”
When asked how, as a director, Sircus manages to pull his diverse troupe into a cohesive whole, he focuses on the importance of practice, practice, practice.
“We rehearse for two hours twice a week,” says Sircus. “Improv is coachable only to a certain extent. I can only give you so many rules before I hamper your imagination and ability to create something funny and cool on stage.”
“So we’ll play this game 50 times. We’ll find the game. what makes you laugh, what makes for a successful scene with your partner — who works the best with one another?” he adds. “Rehearsal is about feeling comfortable with everybody else on stage.”
Sircus compares improv to a magic show — particularly given that audiences are often left wondering how the performers’ minds work so quickly.
“To a certain extent it’s true, you do have to think on your feet. But we have also played this game 100 times,” says Sircus. “Even if the suggestion of a bus stop is not something we’ve heard before, it’s the same framework as a grocery store…or a school… or an airport.”
The VQ is now in its 26th year and Sircus explains that throughout the process the troupe has changed in its composition and goals.
“We started off as a hybrid sketch comedy improv group,” he says. “Over the years, we became what we are now, a group that does half long form and half short form. Our repertoire consists of recurring games that we invented. Often they follow the same general guidelines — telling a story with some constraint on how you tell that story.”
Though improv is about the unexpected suggestion from the audience, The VQ relies on those original improv games, both long and short form —which members have developed and perfected in the years since the troupe’s founding in 1986. Among them are “Revenge” in which an audience member shares a story of wrongdoing and The VQ enacts a fitting payback, “Circle of Death,” a series of two-person scenes culminating in the comedic demise of the participants, and “The Oracle” a three-headed fortune teller of sorts that answers audience questions. As director of The VQ, it’s up to Sircus to create the line-up for each show. And with about 25 games in the troupe’s repertoire there’s plenty of material to choose from in selecting the 8 to 10 games that will go into a program, in addition to a couple long form pieces.
“By long form I mean games with a structure that allows us to tell a longer story,” he notes. “They’re 10 to 15 minutes with multiple characters, story lines, different times in the story — and much more theatrical than a short form, which is like the show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’”.
When asked how The VQ selected Bay Street as a fall venue, Sircus explains that in order to keep expenses down, bookings are often secured in towns where troupe members have family homes. In this case, the group will be staying at the East Hampton home of a sophomore member.
“He’s actually from Manhattan — as is the case with a lot of people here, one house is not enough,” says Sircus, a native of Chicago who finds the second home practice intriguing. “I’ve never been to the Hamptons. I’m sort of excited to see what it’s all about. Which of my preconceptions turn out to be true and which are full fledged lies.”
Ironically, though he grew up in the second city, Sircus never took advantage of that veritable institution of improv training, Second City.
“Improv was not part of my life growing up,” admits Sircus who was more focused on athletics than theatrics. Though since joining The VQ, he has developed a couple recurring characters all his own.
“I don’t know how they originated. I picked a voice or character in a scene and I liked the way it worked,” he says. “I have this sassy jappy valley girl who I like to imagine is from Southern California. I’m not sure what that says about the influence Yale has had on me. I’ve also got this withered southern character, sadly the inspiration sounds a lot like Forrest Gump in my head, and I’ve got this pedantic math teacher and that’s pretty much it.”
And by the way, don’t expect to be told what the name of The Viola Question really means. Sircus notes Yale is big into secret societies — Freshmen members aren’t let in on the story behind the name until the end of their first year. And it remains a carefully guarded secret from one generation to the next.
In the meantime, The VQ is gearing up first for its Bay Street appearance and then their loner tours. While the spring tour will be out on the West Coast, Sircus says the winter tour will be much closer to home.
“For the winter tour, we’d like to do the East Coast, so we can drive back to Yale when it’s done,” says Sircus who notes one of the stops will be Manhattan, where the troop will stay at the home of the same student who is offering his East Hampton house this weekend.
“We’re exploiting all his property this year,” he adds.
The Viola Question performs at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 20, 2012. Tickets are $10 at the door or online at www.baystreet.org.