Whose line is it, anyway? Improv scores big with McNick audiences

improv2On Friday, April 24, members of the McNicholas extended community packed the house of the Jeanne Spurlock Theatre to witness a moment of Rocket history in the making. No – they weren’t there to see a main stage play rehearsed to the peak of perfection with props and costumes galore. When the actors stepped out onto the black-box stage, they did so without script, microphone, or concrete agenda. Simply put, they had absolutely no idea what they were supposed to do or say.

And that’s where the magic happens.

These eleven actors, clad simply, each in a different color of the rainbow, are members of the McNicholas High School Improv Troup, a group of students who uniquely see the fun in being put on the spot.

Senior Max Bartel put it well: “Anybody can be funny and make a joke,” he explained. “But it takes a certain amount of courage to get up and do it on stage.”

Short for improvisational acting, improv is a form of theatre in which actors create the dialogue and the action as they go along, typically within the parameters of certain games that are established beforehand. While it’s a basic skill in the world of theatre, in its purest form, improv relies on a quick wit, a keen sense of direction, near-impeccable teamwork, and a willingness to “just go with it” when a scene shifts its focus.

“I feel like everyone can do improv,” senior Trevor Lynd said. “It’s just a matter of getting the confidence to try it.”

The club has its roots in years past, in the bygone era of McNick’s production of Grease, back to the days when Matt Gabbard (who is now a junior in The University of Alabama’s exclusive theatre program) made his unforgettable leading debut as the cross-dressing Jean-François Millet in Is He Dead?, and McNick united to support tornado victims through additional performances of the dramatic Acts of God. Spearheaded by graduates Mark Boehm, Courtney Dunne, Scott Frenzel, and Matt Ketchum, Improv Club began as a small venture – simply providing a time and a place for those who wished to try their hand at on-the-spot acting.

“It’s supposed to be completely unfiltered, but we kind of have to filter it,” Lynd laughed. “I try to plan my scenes in advance, even though I’m not supposed to.”

This year marked a major shift in McNick’s low-key improv culture. Instead of keeping to the space within the walls of the classroom in which they practice, members of the troupe decided it was time to share their talent with the rest of the McNick community, beginning plans for a stage show, cleverly dubbed by its creators as “Room for Improv-ment,” early in 2015.

To clarify: Improv Club and Improv Troupe are two very different realms (or so their members claim). While Improv Club is open to all students, whether an experienced thespian or a nervous freshman who just happens to wander into the wrong room after school, the members of Improv Troupe consider themselves to be a step above – these are the members who took the stage Friday night for the show.

Despite the light atmosphere set as the audience took their seats, however, the actors couldn’t help but feel the nerves kick in before taking the stage. While it certainly takes courage to act before an audience in the first place, the Improv Troupe actors are exposed to a completely different element. With no set script to follow, there’s no guarantee that the audience will respond well to the offhand humor.

“Considering it was the first show, we didn’t know how the crowd was going to react,” Bartel said. “Or if there would even be a crowd.”

Highlights of Improv Troupe’s stage debut included a sketch that had junior Salvatore Marino prancing around the stage claiming to have stolen items from cast members, erroneous relationship advice from sophomore Emma Brandt’s spontaneous character “The Bird Mistress,” and the entire cast bowing down to an invisible force whilst singing “Kumbaya” in a monotone hum.

“I thought we’d get light laughter,” Lynd said of the audience’s positive reaction to the show. “But what we got was more like rambunctious roars.”

Much of the group’s influence can be linked to Improv Club/Troupe’s moderator and director, John Chadwell, who, despite being a teacher of science, has had a keen interest in theatrical arts since he was himself a student at McNick. Chadwell first discovered his talent during his senior year of high school, and continued to pursue it through his time at Xavier University, where he was a member of Toolbox, a collegiate troupe that performs improv and sketch comedy. Having returned to McNick as a teacher, Chadwell now oversees both Improv Club and Improv Troupe, building comradery between the actors and offering to lend a hand in directing the first show.

“Chadwell keeps us passionate,” Lynd said. “He keeps us performing at our best.”

With a rather large percentage of the troupe graduating in the next few weeks, Chadwell looks back fondly on the memories he has shared with the five seniors who have given their time, energy, and talent to making Improv Troupe a success.

“They’re a blast to work with,” Chadwell said. “There’s always a lot of energy, and there’s been a lot of growth over the past three years.”

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