Improvisational comedy looks easy on television. The audience yells out "French fry," the performer assumes a mustache and a French accent, the audience laughs.
But as the five members of new Juneau group Morally Improv-erished are finding out, wit and reaction merely plays a supporting role onstage. Trust and listening are key for the group not to flounder, and discipline is the quickest cure for devolution.
"Having never done theater before, it's been very entertaining to see how the process develops," said group member Glenn Merrill. "When we're learning the game and learning how you interact with people, it's very different than watching someone you think is funny in a movie or on television."
In the fine tradition of groups like Second City or the cast of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" the five members of Morally Improv-erished believe there's an audience for improvisational comedy in Juneau. Their first public performance is 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, at the Hangar Ballroom. Admission is $5.
During the course of the evening, the performers play different games, or skits. The confines of each game are restrictions in verbal or physical actions, and scenes or answers the actors have to develop with suggestions from the audience. For a good list of improv games, check out www.humanpingpongball.com.
"With myself having done improv before, Mike (Christenson) having done standup and Mike (Levine) having done sketch comedy, we have people who are accustomed to being in front of an audience in a humorous situation," group member Eric Caldwell said.
"We all have to mime," Levine said. "We all have to do physical comedy. We all have to roll around onstage, and we all have to be willing to build scenes, which basically means we have to listen."
The result was funny, for different reasons, at a private family-and-friends performance on Jan. 15. In the opening game, a skit called "Mr. Know It All," Merrill, Caldwell and Levine played a three-headed expert on everything. The Know-It-All took questions from the audience. The three parts of the head would offer a word in succession until an appropriate, or inappropriate, answer was given. It was clever.
Later on, in a skit called "Ding," Anna Gagne-Hawes, Merrill and Caldwell acted out a suggested theme from the audience: in this case an Australian religious adaptation of "Lord of the Rings." Levine served as the referee, ringing a bell when something wasn't funny and signaling the actors to change their course. The way that the actors saved themselves and changed direction was increasingly hilarious.
"One of the wonderful things about improv is that if you play within the structures of the games, you don't have to be funny, because the game will be funny for you," Caldwell said.
"It's more about learning to be onstage and learning to trust each other," Levine said. "And know that, if we say or do something, someone else will pick it up and run with it. Anna and Glenn and Mike are natural risk-takers, which is what you have to do if you put yourselves out there within the confines of the group."
The idea to start a comedy group in Juneau began in May 2003. Caldwell and Levine, along with Perseverance Theatre community relations director Patricia Hull and former Juneau residents Kathleen Harper and Jeff Nepple, met a few times and played some improvisational games.
"My idea was that there were so many inside jokes in and around Juneau that everybody knows about - Carhartts, tourists, XtraTuffs, Governor's Mansion, Pel'meni," Levine said. "That, to me, is the genesis of sketch comedy, and that's what I had been pondering when I met Eric and Jeff and Kathleen. Our idea was to stand up and voice the things that people think."
When Harper and Nepple moved away and Hull decided to take the summer off, Caldwell and Levine began recruiting new members.
Levine brought Merrill into the group. They knew each other from a dirty-song contest they had participated in during the Pelican Boardwalk Boogie.
The Boogie "is an easy audience, because they're mostly drunk," Merrill said. "Shortly thereafter, Mike came to me and said they were doing an improv group. It was something I always wanted to try."
Levine knew Christenson from a March 2003 performance of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" at the Gold Town Nickelodeon. Christenson strapped a three-foot penis on him during the course of the anti-war stage reading.
Christenson, a mayoral candidate last November and a former standup comedian in Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, once emceed a gig in Stillwater, Minn., that included comedian Tom Arnold.
"He was so drunk that I thought he said his name was Tom Reynolds," Christenson said.
"In the past, I've had a script, so this is a completely different thing for me," he said. "I couldn't speak when these guys started working on me. It's been a process of them telling me to stop thinking."
The four - Caldwell, Levine, Merrill and Christenson - rehearsed in Caldwell's, and later Levine's, living room. Then in November, Juneau-Douglas High School drama teacher Bethany Bereman and Toby Clark brought up a two-man Seattle improv group, Unexpected Productions, for a performance and workshop. They met Gagne-Hawes.
"Mike called me and said they needed a girl, and with an offer like that, how could I turn them down?" Gagne-Hawes said.
"We saw her and after we spent an evening working with her in workshops, we said, 'She can really do this, She can jump right in and immediately contribute,' " Caldwell said.
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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