Arts & Culture » Stage

Improv Improves in Boise

A look into the local improv comedy scene

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The room at the back of Bull's Head Station was roaring with laughter. Two servers maneuvered through the dark room, delivering tequila shots and fried calamari amidst yells from audience members in response to the boisterous blond in the spotlight.

"Give me the name of a fictional character, a famous actor and a superhero!" she yelled. The little bar came to life.

"Willy Wonka!" "Christopher Walken!" "The Tick!"

Three men and one woman, players in local improv comedy troupe Chicks 'n' Giggles began bringing the suggestions to life in their rendition of "The Dating Game," with mime, dance, song and some impersonations thrown in. This group is one of a handful currently adding improv to the local cultural mix.

Improvised theater goes back to the commedia dell'arte performers in 15th century Italy who took the stage without a script and let their imaginations take over. Nearly 500 years later, American actress Viola Spolin began working with children in community theater in the 1930s, creating games and exercises that are the hallmark of the improv we see today. In the early '50s, Spolin's son, Paul Sills, started working with a group of Chicago actors called the Compass Players. In 1959, some of the Compass Players went on to form Chicago's Second City, the training ground for the likes of Chris Farley, John Belushi and Bill Murray.

Today, Spolin's ideas are still taught.

"Improv is the basis on which all successful actors and comedians build their foundations," says Joe Golden, College of Idaho theater arts professor, longtime actor with Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Boise Contemporary Theater and founder of the Fool Squad. He explains that improv actors follow five basic rules: don't deny an offer made by your partner; don't ask open-ended questions; you don't have to be funny; you can look good if you make your partner look good; and use storytelling to make it work. Improv actors use those tenets in the two basic types of performances: long form and short form.

"Long-form improv is when the players take a few audience suggestions at the beginning of the performance and use them to create a longer story. Short form is when a series of short games all driven by audience suggestions make up the bulk of the performance, and that seems to be really popular with Idaho audiences," explains Mike Hanselman, managing director and founding member of Improvolution.

Improv games range from Return Desk, in which one player leaves the room while the audience suggests an object and something not-so-obviously wrong with it, to Last Letter, in which every line spoken needs to start with the last letter of the previous line.

"Improv, especially game-based, is much more difficult than scripted acting because you are putting yourself out there in front of a live audience where you are the director, actor and writer of your show," says Golden, "so if your idea dies out there, you are held completely accountable."

Local stand-up comedian and NYC transplant Jen Adams agrees.

"By performing improv there is constant fresh development happening, it keeps your comedy chops up. Improv is really easy to learn, but it's really hard to do well."

Troupes try to set themselves apart with the addition of some signature piece or unique trademark, like Insert Foot Theatre's closing Dance Party sketch.

"We added it one night because we felt like dancing and needed the release at the end of the show, and it just stuck," explains Lisa Guerricabeitia, an Insert Foot player and a veteran improv artist, who performed with local high-school improv troupe Foul Puppets as a teenager. The Foul Puppets and improv group Recycled Minds performed for years at Boise's Funny Bone comedy club.

"The Funny Bone was really the center of the comedy scene in Boise for years," says Ron Torres, a founding member of Insert Foot Theatre. "When it closed in 2008, it was a great loss to the comedy scene and the city."

Many of the original Recycled Minds players caught the performing bug again recently and have started their own improv groups. Improvolution was the first, and Insert Foot Theatre and Chicks 'n' Giggles soon followed suit. But Boise isn't the only city in the Northwest seeing a resurgence of improv.

In Portland, Ore., the improv scene is similar to Boise's. Portland also has three local improv troupes, all of which are really thriving, said Virginia Jones, a stand-up comedian with the Main Stage Players at Curious Comedy.

"We have a few big comedy clubs in Portland featuring great improv. They offer classes and have a pretty rigorous tryout process," says Jones. "The improv troupes are very popular here but are relatively young and still building an audience."

Audience building might be the easiest aspect of the craft.

"Improv troupes are so successful [in Boise] because they have such a community feel about them. Internally they share the spotlight, promotion, marketing, advertising, what's best for the company as a whole, and also externally, as they can perform at different venues, events and are really good at putting their group out there," says Adams. "From the audience perspective, you get to participate in the show, it's fun and inexpensive entertainment."

Scott Hale of Chicks 'n' Giggles agrees.

"We're serious about comedy, but we also love the chance to just be stupid together."

While there's certain to be some off-color jokes and edgy humor, improv can be cathartic, theatrical and ridiculously fun.

"You're definitely going to see something that's off-the-wall," says C.J. Sower of Insert Foot. "Something you'll never see again."