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Riff Laugh

Rising Local Improv Community Debuts Its Most Ambitious Project Yet

Megan Wills/Baltimore Improv Group
Gus Improv troupe members (from left) Kathryn Carlson, Heather Moyer, and Bridget Caviola make it up as they go.

By John Barry | Posted 12/10/2008

Unscripted

Theatre Project Dec. 11-13

For more information visit bigimprov.org

On a rainy, late Monday night in the classroom of a Hampden charter school, Prescott Gaylord and five members of the Gus improvisational troupe are surrounded by a table loaded with handcuffs, chains, masks, swords, wigs, and other props. They've been through six months of rehearsals. They've got a list of exercises and routines that they're about to move through. And they've got a looming opening night: Thursday. The only thing they're missing is a play.

In the tradition of improvisational theater, that part will be up to the audience. Unscripted is going to be a two-act play, entirely prompted by cues delivered by audience members chosen at random. The props will be inserted into the equation. The troupe itself--Heather Moyer, Jody Moscaritolo, Bridget Cavaiola, Kathryn Carlson, and Alex Hill--are veterans.

After an initial warm up--exercises include working in a circle, talking over one another, and throwing verbal cues at one another--the cast starts to work out spur of the moment scenarios. Gaylord occasionally interjects words, constantly moving actors out of what he calls the "safe zone."

The Gus troupe is part of the burgeoning world of Baltimore's Improvisational Group (BIG), which, since its founding five years ago, has gradually exploded in numbers and groups, classes and shows. Now, with 40 active members, it includes six troupes: Plan B, Uderhall, Population: Six, the Moving Walkways, Mister Licorice, and Gus. Their schedule is busy: BIG hosts about two productions a month, while individual troupes also work charities, corporate events, and private parties.

And as it became clear on frigid Saturday night in the Station North Arts District a few days later, tickets go fast. It's a typical BIG event, with GUS participating as a warm-up of sorts for Unscripted. Three electric space heaters are on full blast, and the temperature hovers in the upper 50s. There's no cloak room but that's no loss--audience members keep their cloaks on. They're crowded around the stage in wooden chairs with the overflow pressed against the glass doors.

The first up is the Moving Walkways, a three-person troupe including Roy Taff, Ethan Cooper, and Amy Sens. They are greeted with a burst of applause, and then there's a pause, as the troupe tries to jump start things: "So, guys, how was your Thanksgiving?" There's a brief discussion about trans fats. When that peters out, another question gets shouted out: "Anyone else have anything weird happen this Thanksgiving?" Then someone in the audience comes up with the weekend's signature weirdness: the now-legendary trampling death at Wal-Mart incurred in a Black Friday blitzkrieg.

And they're off. Three troupes and two hours later the skits have unfolded, covering, among other things, temporary job interviews, melting of the polar ice caps, being best friends with a Hefty bag, straddling the continental United States, high fructose corn syrup, and, well, the list goes on. By the end of the evening, as the audience pours back onto Charles Street, there's a feeling of surviving a Wal-Mart blitz, loaded with off-the-cuff punch lines and weird scenarios, all for the $10 cover fee.

And that's just the point. You don't go to an improv show to remember the laugh lines. It's the experience--the contact, immediacy, and high-wire experience of watching performers who having nothing to work with but the moment.

A few days later, in a darkly lit Hampden bar, Gus director Prescott Gaylord sits in front of a ginger ale, offering his carefully considered thoughts on the form. When he joined BIG four and a half years ago, he says he quickly shifted from performing to directing. Now he's the tiller behind Gus' controlled but free-form chaos.

He also teaches improv classes. "Improv is not there without complete trust," he says. "So you have to believe that when someone says something that is completely off-the-wall, it's there to make you look good."

And even though it's unplanned, it follows rules, like a tennis match. "It's unscripted," he says. "You accept that you don't know where every ball is going to go. You only know where the next one is going. You only know where you're going to hit it. You don't know what's going to get hit back at you. And you have to hit it back, or heighten it. Anything else makes the conversation or the tennis game go nowhere."

And there's one skill all improvisors need to develop. "An advanced improviser is a great listener," he says. "Instead of just listening to the words, the improviser takes in everything--the body language, the games the person is using."

It sounds a little like the kind of advice that might make you more fun to be around at parties--or, for that matter, to live in the same house with. Gaylord says that many people take the classes to improve their own communicating skills. "You have to take off the covers that you put on yourself," he says. "And get to the part of the brain that can immediately respond without any thought whatsoever. The brain makes a lot of connections that you wouldn't want to make in regular life. But when you're on stage, you're in a place where you can immediately say things without thinking. And that's something for the other person to build on."

It's training that many actors use. When contemporary improv started in Chicago in the '70s, Gaylord notes, it was used to wean actors of some of their bad habits. After years of wrapping themselves in roles, actors can begin to anticipate transformations, or lose a sense of the immediacy. Improvising can bring them back.

"Warm-up exercises put your brain in a place that's childlike and playful," Gaylord says, moving from a "logical cognitive place to an illogical, immediate place."

That may be part of the appeal that improv has for younger audiences. "When we first started our audiences were 40 and up," Gaylord says. "Now most of our audience is under 30. As our audience has widened, it's widened mostly in that age group. I think the reflection is that they're more in tune with the escapism of improv, and the fact that improv even attempts to reflect the absurdity of life, and also that younger people are more likely to take risks. And young people are all about that risk."

And they may be less interested in the final product. "The theater is exciting because every night is a little different," says Gaylord, who attends conventional theater regularly. "But with the improv it's exciting because the entirety of the experience is one shared experience that those players have with that audience."

And right now, Gaylord and Gus are looking forward to offering a new experience to Baltimore's improv fans. He isn't offering predictions, and, although he's the director, he has no idea what the play is ultimately going to be about. But, in the BIG tradition, he can make one promise. "It won't be seen again," he says. "And it won't be done again." H

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