Arts and Entertainment

Improv troupe performs for good fun and good cause

Gail Fleming, Vicki Robin, Asharaine Machala and Carrie Carpenter have some fun with “Wake Up Laughing.”    - Marian Myszkowski photo
Gail Fleming, Vicki Robin, Asharaine Machala and Carrie Carpenter have some fun with “Wake Up Laughing.”
— image credit: Marian Myszkowski photo

Say, “Yes!” and all your improv dreams will come true.

No, really. If you just say “yes” it will all come together for the perfect theatrical experience.

Or not.

But at least you’ll have a whole lot of fun trying, or just watching.

Improvisational theater, also known worldwide as “improv,” is a form of performance that uses spontaneity as its main tenet. Saying “yes” to anything your fellow actor may throw at you onstage is the golden rule of improv. Deflecting it is a big no-no.

Whidbey Islanders will be able to see this process for themselves when the local improv team “Wake Up Laughing” performs in its first improv competition from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14 at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters in Langley.

Improv uses a variety of theater games to create instant entertainment. There are no scripts, only suggestions for scenes from the audience. At the “Wake Up Laughing” performance there will be four teams competing in a series of two matches. Three black-robed critics ... er ... judges will assess the talents of the teams by issuing points for each game played. The team with the most points wins.

However, if the audience is entertained, everybody is a winner, especially the Good Cheer Food Bank, which will receive all proceeds from the event.

The fun thing about improv for the audience is that it has an extemporaneous say in the dialogue, setting and plot, and gets to influence the performances, which tend to be very funny.

The basic skills of listening, clarity, confidence and instinct are considered important for all actors to develop, and improvisation is great exercise to sharpen those skills. But, learning the fine art of improv is not only beneficial to the aspiring performer. It is a pastime that can benefit non-performers, as well.

For the past six months, veteran performer and director Michael Barker has been guiding a group of 18 players to take the continuous series of plunges required of those who do improv.

“Whidbey has needed an improv troupe for a while,” said Barker, who started doing improv back in the ’70s.

“Laughing is one key to good health ... and all of us could use a few more laughs as we face the challenges in 2009-10 and beyond.” Barker added.

Often the most obvious audience suggestions for scenes result in the funniest improvs, Barker said, but putting one’s dignity into the hands of the audience still takes a lot of courage.

Victoria Castle is one brave member of the improv troupe.

“I joined the group to learn how to be ever more flexible with whatever comes my way, and being willing to look foolish,” Castle said.

“One of the first rules is ‘say yes’ to whatever shows up. That has been a great practice for all of us, and translates well into life in general.”

It’s the constant laughter that Castle loves about the group.

“We’ve made it a very safe place to try things and flop, and they’re often the funniest. We laugh with each other and learn together in joy and play, rather than with criticism and effort. Also a great formula for life,” she said.

Barker said that though some of the members of the troupe have years of previous performance experience, it makes no difference to the fledgling players.

“We have become a merry band of players that laughs regularly at our own antics,” Barker said. “It is my hope to do performances on the island at least once a month at one venue or another. It is also my hope to ‘compete’ with other improv troupes off-island, or bring them to Whidbey.”

Barker is in the process of forming a second troupe of improv players as the waiting list for “Wake Up Laughing” is getting longer. He said he may open another workshop in December that would meet on Saturday afternoons. A second troupe would create an island circuit of competition as opposed to having to seek out off-island teams.

“It takes several months to get to a performance level. This troupe has worked a long time to develop trust with each other and allow their spontaneity to emerge along with their creativity,” Barker said.

Marian Myszkowski had some experience with improv years ago and had been keen to return. She’s glad she did.

“I’ve found improvisation is a great way to practice valuable life lessons, such as letting go of expectations and control. You just don’t know what’s going to happen next on stage. If you try to control and lead the scene, it can fall flat; it just isn’t as interesting. You really learn to let go,” she said.

Ultimately, Barker’s goal is to see the “Wake up Laughing” gang become skilled enough so it can make regular public appearances throughout the year. But that means a willingness to take continuous risks.

“An improviser is like a person walking backwards. He knows where he’s been but has no idea where he is going,” Barker said.

Admission is one bag of groceries or $5 at the door for two 45-minute shows. Coffee, wine and food will be available at the café during the event.

“Wake Up Laughing” includes Allan Ament, Asharaine Machala, Carrie Carpenter, Deloris Ament, Erick Westphal, Erin Hildebrand, Gail Fleming, Jim Scullin, Vicki Robin, Keith Mack, Larry Woolworth, Laura Persaud, Tom Churchill, Kent Junge, Raven Odion, Castle and Myszkowski.

Mukilteo Coffee Roasters café is at 5331 S. Crawford Road in Langley.

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