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Why So Serious? Improv is much more than grown-up nerds cracking jokes — it's an art form.
By Christen Gruebel

The Republican National Convention." "Mavericks." "Abortion."

It could very well be a post-mortem on Sarah Palin's talking points, but she's not the only one who's performed a verbal tap dance recently. At a recent performance of Philadelphia improv group The N Crowd, an audience member's suggestion of "abortion" led to quite an awkward silence. Luckily, these are the moments improvisers live for. The group's executive director, B.J. Ellis, simply countered, "Lots of things get aborted. Like space missions." 

Mining comedy gold from anything that might come out of an audience member's mouth is the name of the improv game. Says Bobbi Block, artistic director of Philadelphia's Tongue & Groove, "An improviser's credo is: You can work with any suggestion."

The fourth annual Philadelphia Improv Festival, beginning tonight, will showcase short-form (give-and-take between performer and spectator in which short scenes are created around various audience suggestions) and long-form (in which the troupe gathers audience ideas only at the start) improv. Local favorites — including ComedySportz Philadelphia, newly formed Illegal Refill and longtime long-form collective LunchLady Doris — will participate along with troupes from across the country.

Standing apart from the crowd, identifying itself as long-form — but not quite in the traditional sense — sits Tongue & Groove. Describing the signature style of the company as "serio-comic realism," Block tightens the parameters of traditional improv and firmly plants the performers in the here and now. "I'm interested in creating theater that has the integrity of something scripted, but the playfulness and tension of something that's improvised," she says.

The group's typical format asks audience members to contribute their own secrets anonymously via index card. Randomly selected cards are then used by the performers to guide scenes, build characters or serve as the beginnings of impromptu monologues. What emerges is an amalgam of emotion — "really struggling through the human experience by improvising it," Block explains.

The format is breaking ground in Philadelphia, but its existence sums up the rallying cry for the city's growing improv community. "The goal is not just to be 'big,' but to be innovative," says Kristen Schier, The N Crowd's co-artistic director. And for an improv group to carve this niche for itself, the bare-bones requirements are a willing public and a reliable performance space.

"That's what the festival is all about: getting it in front of the public," says David Dritsas, executive director of ComedySportz. The granddaddy of Philly improv, ComedySportz has been around for 16 years; its members are some of the most prolific performers in the city, and many do double- and triple-duty in other groups. "As a performer, I have an ego that needs to be stroked," says Alexis Simpson, who performs with ComedySportz, Rare Bird Show and Illegal Refill. "Put me on stage and I'll do whatever you want."

Adding to the ComedySportz party are Block (also a member of LunchLady Doris) and her Tongue & Groove cohort Josh Rubinstein.

"The scene is kind of incestuous," Schier jokes. A teacher at Philly Improv Theater (where Block used to be an instructor) and a performer in The N Crowd, Schier works closely with Matt Nelson, who wears a second hat as this festival's executive producer.

With all the cross-performing, the city's improv community is gaining ground. As for the festival, the fact that there's so much local talent to showcase "really positions Philadelphia as a growing entity in the world of improvisational theater," says Nelson.

But if Philly is to become a national improv hub, building an audience is still the final frontier. Simpson, for one, believes the onus lies on the performers to diffuse misinformation and, perhaps, a less-than-edgy rep. "The newspaper articles are all, 'Hey! Wanna watch a bunch of grown-up nerds in pleated khakis crack jokes about pizza? Wacky!' If that's how the community is still being perceived by the greater public, I'm not doing my job very well."

 

-Taken from The Philadelphia City Paper (November 11, 2008)

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