For the ninth year in a row, the Providence Improv Fest is bringing live comedy to the capital city. The five-day festival kicked off Wednesday evening at 95 Empire Street, the former Perishable Theater, and runs through Sunday.
“It’s going to be amazing,” promised Mauro Hantman, artistic director of the PIF.
PIF is a showcase of a special form of theater where the actors are unprepared: there are no scripts, rehearsals, costumes or sets. Everything is by the seat of your pants and off your cuff. It may sound like an actor’s and audience’s nightmare, but left in capable hands, improv can be magical.
“It’s the most immediate form of theater you can see,” said Hantman. “The people who do improv tend to be really smart and really funny. It’s shocking how quickly and effectively things can come together.”
The groups at PIF will present various forms: short form games, long form scenes, plays and even a handful of musicals.
Hantman and the PIF committee spent the last year choosing groups from across the nation to perform, ensuring that they bring the best of the best to Providence.
“We’ve got some really high quality groups this year,” said Hantman.
This year, 31 groups, from New York, Maryland, Texas, Connecticut, Massachusetts and of course, Rhode Island, will perform.
In addition to the groups, there will be a two-by-two tournament, where performers from different groups perform two-person scenes with someone they’ve never worked. Performers’ names are put into a hat and picked at random. The teams get 10 minutes to do what they want.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Hantman. The two-by-two will take place Saturday, at midnight.
The first night will showcase three groups of high school kids: one from Woonsocket, another from Barrington and the Trinity Zoo, a melting pot of the state’s best young improvisers.
Thursday evening features family friendly shows and music. Friday through Sunday will showcase the teams.
Ben Rameaka is from Airwolf, an improv team from the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in New York City. UCB was started by a handful of improv elite, including the former “Saturday Night Live” actress Amy Poehler.
Rameaka was born in Warwick and raised in Vermont, and is excited to bring his talents back to his home state. Airwolf does what they call “Let’s Go Back to Your Place,” an improvised story that begins with an audience interview.
“We interview people about their [messed up] living situations,” said Rameaka. “Then we use that as the basis of our improvisation, using the information they’ve told us in an analogous way.”
Airwolf will improvise a long scene, followed by multiple short scenes. Then they do the long scene again, showing how the shorter scenes influenced the action.
Rameaka, who has been with UCB since 2006, has been with Airwolf since its inception two years ago. Airwolf is made up mainly of UCB instructors.
“Improv comedy is incredibly unique,” said Rameaka. “It’s incredibly communal. It’s like stand-up that likes the audience instead of disliking the audience. It includes the audience.”
Rameaka said good improv sometimes appears magical; an art that turns nothing into something before the audience’s eyes.
“People think there must be some magic going on, but really it’s a lot of technique,” he said.
Hantman said improv is a unique and often hilarious experience.
“It’s created in front of you, in real time,” said Hantman. “It’s unlike any other kind of theater.”
Billy Domineau, a recent New York University grad from the Moses Brown School in Providence, is returning to his Rhody roots this weekend. Domineau will be performing with his group, Gentleman Party, on Friday.
Gentleman Party was formed by a group of NYU friends that enjoyed performing together and wanted to continue after graduation.
The group was formed in 2010 and performs regularly at the People’s Improv Theater, or “The PIT,” in New York City.
Gentleman Party will be performing a montage of scenes.
“Just expect us to make a weird choice,” said Domineau. “We’re going to go to that really weird thing and play it to no sensible end.”
Domineau said Gentleman Party’s performances tend to be physical and character driven.
“Every scene will eventually get hijacked by a side character,” he said. “We try to have fun for ourselves and hope that comes out on the other side.”
In addition to the performances, there are also three free workshops on Friday and Saturday afternoon. Participants must arrive 15 minutes before the class but no registration is necessary. More information on classes is available at ProvidenceImprovFest.com.
For those that have never been before, Hantman hopes they’ll come to experience something new. Hantman’s own group, Improv Jones, which performs regularly at the same address on Thursdays and Saturday at 10 p.m., will be taking stage Sunday at 8 p.m.
Hantman and fellow performers like Rameaka know that they’ll be able to entertain audiences this weekend with their one-of-a-kind antics.
“It’s a show you’ve never seen before and you’ll never see again,” said Rameaka.
The Providence Improv Fest runs Wednesday, June 13 to Sunday June 17. All shows are $10 and tickets can be purchased at the door. Audience members can also purchase day passes ($15 Wed., Thurs. and Sun. and $20 Fri. and Sat.) to see as many shows per day as they please. All performances take place at either 95 Empire Street or the Roots Café, both in Providence. A full schedule and more information are available at www.ProvidenceImprovFest.com.
An actor walks into a club...
There was a time in the history of the theater that improvisation was considered more valuable as a teaching tool than a form of entertainment. In fact, claims of its techniques being capable of delivering the goods in the fields of education, psychology and business, as well as acting, have been seriously advanced. Even its founders shared this belief, but the universally agreed upon effect beyond serious drama, has been its effect on comedy.
Prior to the emergence of spontaneous performance as popular entertainment, most theatrical presentations very literally stuck to the script. In the case of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, an audience is allowed to expect fidelity to the written word, but in the world of popular entertainment, improvisation is fresh air where there were stale theatric conventions and censorship. As late as 1968, a director was successfully prosecuted twice for allowing her actors to improvise in performance. Until 1968, British law required scripts to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain's Office and inspectors came to performances to make sure the approved script was followed exactly.
One of the founders of the modern form spoke of “explosions of intuition” infusing an actor’s performance, but it is unlikely that even Viola Spolin realized how revolutionary the idea was.
Spolin held workshops and developed rehearsal routines to get actors to loosen up and develop character and story without totally relying on scripts. Most people credit Spolin with raising the techniques of what we commonly came to know as improvisational comedy. She developed a system of “theater games” in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s that became the basis of her son, Paul Sill’s work.
Sill was a founding member of The Compass Players, which grew out of his mother’s ideas about improvisation. Compass morphed into The Second City, where the workshop activities happened on stage. The result was a new kind of laughter. It was humor of a new, hip urbane sensibility that grew out of jazz and literature of the age, a sensibility that valued spontaneity and irony. Alan Arkin’s naturalistic acting techniques arose from his Second City experience. His career is studded with some of the most subtly funny and hip performances on film. They never made him a huge star, but they made him one of the most respected comic actors of all time.
One of the first spin-offs from the Compass-Second City comedy nexus was the enormous success of Elaine May and Mike Nichols in 1956. In addition to club and theater appearances, Nichols and May made long playing records (LPs) that were perfectly suited to their extended comic riffs. They became bestsellers, setting a standard for urbane comedy that is still influential today.
“It was like a song,” said comedian and writer Steve Martin, “you could listen to it over and over. I used to go to sleep to them at night.”
While Steve Martin often boasts about how many times he has appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” experience with the Second City group in Chicago has practically become a prerequisite to become a cast member of the show: Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were all veterans of the company. Between the original Second City and its satellite in Toronto, the alumni list reads like a who’s who of comedy for the past several decades: Bob Odenkirk, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Eugene Levy and Steve Carell all served time with one or the other incarnations of Second City.
But Chicago wasn’t the only city with a resident improvisational comedy troupe.
In San Francisco, The Committee Theater was active in North Beach during the 1960s, but it still had a Chicago accent; Second City veteran Alan Myerson and his wife Jessica founded it. Peter Bonerz, Howard Hesseman and Chris Ross survived beyond its demise in 1972 and got into television: Bonerz as a director and actor on the “Bob Newhart Show” and Hesseman as the hippie relic Johnny Fever on “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
In the 30 or so years it has existed, The Groundlings in Los Angeles has launched the likes of Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Chris Parnell, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Chris Kattan, Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz of “Saturday Night Live.”