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SUNDAY, JANUARY 28, 2007
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Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Dave Stripling and Jen Lohrman perform with Face2Face Improv Troupe at Java Jaay on Sixth Avenue in Decatur.

HA! Laughter: Unscripted
Improv artists come Face2Face with their fears

By Danielle Komis
dkomis@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

A woman who loves to wear mud for lipstick!” “Tickle Me Elmo!,” “Oprah on Valium!”

These were the three “Dating Game” contestants for Dave Stripling — only their quirky characteristics were a mystery to him. Along with deciding who would be the best date, he had to ask questions that would reveal their hidden identities.

The diverse audience at the Face2Face Comedy Improv performance at Java Jaay on Sixth Avenue sipped coffee and tried to keep the hot liquid from squirting out their noses as the Madison-based improv troupe started the game, one of many improv skits they played that Friday night.

After dealing with a woman who spoke of little but potted plants and a disarmingly giggly and squirmy woman, Stripling chose the sedated Oprah. The audience roared with laughter when she wandered over to hug him and limply collapsed in his arms.

Eugene Banks leads the improv group Face2Face in a practice in Madison.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Eugene Banks leads the improv group Face2Face in a practice in Madison.
The audience is laughing, but the improv artists don’t care. Because the moment they start caring they won’t be funny anymore.

Despite its appearances and how easy it looks on ABC’s popular improv show “Whose Line is it Anyway?,” improv isn’t about jumping around onstage trying to make people laugh.

Rather, improv is about checking your ego and fear of failure at the door, trusting your fellow players and, of course, plenty of practice, Face2Face improv artists said.

Instead of using scripts, the improv artists play a variety of games that come together after the audience suggests characters, situations and scenes, such as the sedated Oprah. Using words and movement and few props or costumes, the actors establish characters, plotlines and the resolution to the scene.

“The way we’re trained you’re not performing for the audience per se,” said Dave Stripling, a Decatur native and longtime member of the 5-year-old troupe that performs regularly in Decatur, Huntsville and the Tennessee Valley region. “It’s for them but it’s about our scene partners.”

It’s hard not to worry about the audience and what they’re thinking, troupe members said. But when you overcome that fear, the scene will come together.

“You are so vulnerable when you’re out there,” said Wendy Morgan of Decatur, who started training for the troupe in November. “You don’t have the script to hide behind. You have to be what you are in that very moment of time and open yourself up to let go.”

Eugene Banks, director of the troupe, echoed Morgan.

“Good improv is not being afraid to fail on stage,” he said. “It’s such a wild thing, so wild and loose you can’t care about failing.”

How it works

The seven-person troupe — made up of people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences — practices once a week for three hours at the Madison Children’s Theatre. Troupe members laugh and joke with each other during rehearsal, but get serious once a skit is under way. They enjoy their time there so much, they complain if practice is cut short.

Banks, who jokes that he works his actors to exhaustion, leads exercises that start off with mind and word games, then flow into mock performances that he and other members critique.

Anyone interested in joining the troupe is practically read the riot act before they join and is warned of the heavy commitment the troupe demands, Banks said.

“I tell them this is hard work for three hours. You can’t just kind of fly by night,” he said.

While the public may just assume that actors get up and “act funny,” improv actually involves many guidelines.

Improv artists learn stage presence, voice projection, how to set up a scene, and how to “drive” a scene so that it has a clear plot and doesn’t drag out. They also are trained not to curse or do anything non-PG-rated, because Banks’ goal is to bring improv to everyone. In fact, the troupe often is hired for church banquets and events.

But the key to being a good improv artist is to be a keen observer of the world and possess the ability to imitate the speech cadence, mannerisms, accents and facial expressions of a variety of people, Banks said.

Along with learning new improv principles and overcoming the fear of failure, troupe members must also learn to rely on each other and support each other.

During practice, Banks dings a small bell and temporarily throws players out of playing rotation if someone is unsupportive of another player.

At the end of practice, players huddle in a circle, close their eyes, and quietly count down from 50.

Each person says a number, but if two people speak at the same time, the countdown starts again. The awareness exercise helps build the in-tune relationship the troupe needs to succeed, players say.

‘Like a marriage’

Depending on the other players and realizing they’re depending on you is essential, Morgan said.

“You go onstage with somebody and when you say that next line ... you’re trusting that they’re going to take that next line and feed off that,” she said. “It’s almost like a marriage in a sense because it’s a give/take kind of thing.”

Becoming the characters

The audience is up close and personal at Java Jaay for a performance by the improv troupe Face2Face. From left are Steve Lambing, Jen Lohrman, Dave Stripling and Jeremy Shelley.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
The audience is up close and personal at Java Jaay for a performance by the improv troupe Face2Face. From left are Steve Lambing, Jen Lohrman, Dave Stripling and Jeremy Shelley.
And like marriage, it takes time to get into the flow of things. But over time, the players “get” each other and start clicking.

Now, if the audience suggests something silly such as that he and troupe member Jen Lohrman act like two socks in a dryer, they immediately become those characters, Stripling said.

“At that point, the audience is gone, Jen and Dave are gone,” he said. “We are those characters. It takes a lot of rehearsal to get to where we are on that same wavelength,”

And even if the scene bombs, you have to let go of that failure and quickly move on and act like you just conquered the world, he said.

“You have to be able to reset the switch when you feel bad about what you did onstage,” Stripling said.

But the good times in the crazy land of improv far outweigh the bad, so the actors stay hooked.

“It’s like going where no man has gone before,” Morgan explained. “It is nerve-racking to some extent, but I think it’s more of an adrenaline rush. If you can come to terms with yourself that you may look like an idiot at some point in time, then you’re OK to say, ‘I can do this.’ ”

After “The Dating Game” skit at Java Jaay, the group starts playing “Pickup Lines,” in which two players act out a scene suggested to them. Two players wait to hear what scene they will act out.

“Two rabbits that have fallen into a toilet bowl!” someone shouts out.

They smile, roll back their shoulders, forget about looking like idiots, and become the rabbits.

Ready to laugh with Face2Face?

When: Face2Face Improv will perform in
Decatur on Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Java Jaay on Sixth Avenue.

Tickets: $10 at the door or $6 in advance.

In Huntsville: Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. and
8:30 p.m. at Kenny Mango’s on the
square in downtown Huntsville.

On the Net: For more information or
to buy advance tickets, visit www.face2faceimprov.com.

Shows are for appropriate for all ages.

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