Michael Lavoie (CAS ‘03) and John Mulaney (CAS ‘04) enter the scene. Lavoie grabs a chair and Mulaney follows his lead. No one has said anything yet; each looks to the other for some sort of signal as to what to do. Finally Lavoie starts to move around with the chair, weaving in and out suggestively extending one leg of the wooden chair towards the other one. It becomes some sort of mating dance on a National Geographic special. Mulaney picks up on what Lavoie is doing and does the same type of dance with his chair. They move in a circle for a bit, and finally Mullaney comes up with a line.
“Do you think this time we could do it without the chairs?” he asks shyly, looking only at the chair.
Everyone else in the room laughs as Lavoie begins to slowly move his chair closer to Mullaney’s and interlocks the legs.
At first Mullaney didn’t seem to know what to say.
“I guess that’s a no,” he finally offers disappointedly.
That’s the end of the scene, and two more members of the Georgetown Players Improv Group move in to do their own scene. This is their rehearsal; this is how the group perfects the craft of improv for its performances.
Tuesday night the troupe gathers outside the Walsh building, smoking cigarettes, telling stories and catching up since the last time they have all been together. Director Nick Kroll (CAS ‘01) comes running across the street from Wisemiller’s, drops some change in the cup of the man standing there and joins the rest of the group, which is the signal to move upstairs. They hop into the elevator, still chatting.
The troupe doesn’t have a designated rehearsal space; they simply wander around the upper floors of Walsh until they find an open classroom. They take this seeming lack of respect in stride, though. Instead it simply tries to raise the level of comedy entertainment on campus.
Once the group has settled on a room to practice in, they gather around to listen to Kroll as he breaks down what will be happening over the next few days. There is a performance this weekend, ImprovFest, which will feature two guest troupes in addition to G-PIG at the two performances each night. Respecto Montalban, a professional troupe associated with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York, and CHiPS, an amateur troupe from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will perform at Friday night’s shows. At Saturday night’s performances Littleman, a group of Georgetown alumni who have moved into the arena of professional comedy, will replace CHiPS be joined by Littleman.
Kroll decides to do some “games” tonight as a warm up and then work on a “harold” to practice the group’s long form improv. The group jumps up into action, knowing exactly what these terms mean. But for those uninitiated into the world of improv, some explanation is required. A harold is a type of long-form improv which lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The group takes a suggested word and creates a scene around it. With this technique there is more development of environment and characters.
Ten minutes into the warm-up, the group shows how it is capable of exhibiting a wide range of emotions quickly and immediately. While they’ve been cracking jokes and being funny for a while, the tone takes a sharp twist as a new scene begins and the group members pretend to get mad at each other. Mike Lavoie throws a chair, which drives Assistant Director Brian Dodge (CAS ‘02) out of the room. Kroll is hiding behind the curtains while Jacqueline Novak (CAS ‘04) plays peace maker to bring the group back together. She isn’t as effective as Mulaney, who has been tearing newspaper strips the whole time and decides to use them as a “car wash” that each member must walk through in order to make things better. Everyone in the group seems happy that the scene has come full circle.
The troupe then moves onto a game called “Three Lines,” where two people act out a scene, each saying three lines. As each group of two moves forward, they must instantly establish an environment, a character, a relationship between their characters and an overall tone for the scene. Lavoie and Novak go first, basing their scene on the word “chocolate” and deciding to create “Mike and Jacquie’s Chocolate Syrup.” After their three lines, Kroll and James Bruffee (SFS ‘03) take over as a grandmother and grandson, offer up their allotted number of lines and are replaced by Helen O’Reilly (SFS ‘03) and Dodge. Different combinations continue for about 15 more minutes, and the pace quickens as the group gets into the groove of working together and creating comedy.
While the importance of group dynamics may not be completely obvious to the audience during a show, during this less formal, one-on-one time, these performers show their strong ability to work well together. It may seem as though any group of eight random funny people could get up and do the exact same thing together, but they would be hard-pressed to work as well together as G-PIG.
As Kroll puts it, “Each person brings a different ‘wrinkle’ to the group, but the group still has its own collective style. This comes across in our performances as having fun … The basic principle of improv is agreement. There is agreement of tone, an agreement not to ask questions, to be specific. But basically we get to know the other people in the troupe and the way that they think. This ‘messing around’ and playing games are what allow us to do that.”
The troupe’s work together does is impressive, especially considering that half of the troupe’s members, John Hebden (SFS ‘04), Mulaney, Novak and O’Reilly, have only been working together with Bruffee, Dodge, Kroll and Lavoie since September. Kroll places humor aside and switches to a serious tone as the group debriefs at the end of the first rehearsal. He steers the discussion towards tonight’s strengths and weaknesses, saying, “It was a good rehearsal overall, but [we] had trouble finding the environment in the scenes. [It’s] something to work on next time.”
The group then heads downstairs in the elevator together and walks out of the building. In 48 hours they’ll be back at it again.
It’s Thursday night and the group is outside of Walsh again. Once everyone arrives the search for a classroom begins again. The tone now, however, is different. Tonight is the last rehearsal before the performance tomorrow. Having only two rehearsals before a show distinguishes G-PIG from other theater groups on campus, which have multiple rehearsals to prepare for a performance.
Now there is a slight problem.
Kroll reports that the UNC group, CHiPS called at 5 p.m. to say that they would not be coming for the Friday night show. He has since been trying to reach another group to fill their spot but hasn’t had much luck since most colleges are on spring break. This change in plans leaves two acts for the first performance. Although not what they planned to have to deal with, the group is used to coming up with solutions on the spot. They choose to focus instead on rehearsal and let the situation work itself out.
The group seems rambunctious and full of nervous energy; Kroll tries to gain their focus again by leading them in a meditation. Following that they start out with more games. First they practice with a “Conducted Story,” where four people tell as story as the conductor points to them and then “Three-Scene Johnny,” where the group pairs off and begins a new scene with the last line of the previous scene. Finally, they end with “Sideline Debate, in which two people pretend to debate an issue, in this case gun control, while the others try to get the debater to say a phrase, in this case “serendipitous reverberating colonoscopy,” by acting it out using various “sounds like” clues and even doing a charade of a colonoscopy.
The group doesn’t seem to have a limit of subjects that are off-limits or cause for discomfort in any of their games, as evidenced by scenes featuring children being burned by napalm or poking fun at fat people that still turn out funny. When asked about it, Hebden replies, “There aren’t really any forbidden topics. But any topic?and especially one that is controversial?needs to serve the purpose and the theme of the scene it’s introduced into.”
Kroll adds that there is an element of social commentary that does take place through improv.
“We can shed light on a campus issue instead of just making people laugh,” he says.
One example is the technique which the troupe uses to advertise its shows. Standing in Red Square on Friday afternoon, G-PIG’s members alternate getting people’s attention by shouting claims of the troupe’s support for Tom Schneiderman or mourning break up of celebrity marriages.
Tonight’s rehearsal seems to move much faster than Tuesday. The group has gotten used to working together again and ideas and lines come more easily. Each member of the group’s strong character type is more developed. O’Reilly has mastered the dumb blond act, even though she is neither dumb nor blond in real life. Hebden speaks thoughtfully, slowly and deliberately when he is on stage, delivering his lines as though he were in a Shakespearean play. And Mulaney manages quick one-liners that keep the rest of the group on its toes. This is not to say that each person keeps to one character type, but when a scene calls for a specific persona, the group can count on one person to do that character well. When the stereotype of a gay man is needed, Bruffee gets many laughs by acting more gay than Will from Will & Grace. If a scene calls for a class clown, Lavoie does it as well as Bluto from Animal House. And should they need a quiet type, they turn to Dodge, who can be funny without even opening his mouth. Kroll and Novak are the most versatile of the already talented group, and can usually be counted on to play a good character in any situation.
The group leaves Walsh together, counting down the hours to the performance the next evening.
The First Night
It’s an hour before show time on Friday night and Bulldog Alley is in a flurry. Novak has lost her “uniform,” an old-school, three-quarter length baseball t-shirts with the group’s pig logo on the front; O’Reilly and Dodge are working on making her a replacement using iron-on patches. Bruffee and Lavoie scurry around the room setting up chairs. Kroll has just arrived with some good news for everyone: A troupe from Miami University of Ohio has arrived unannounced. They had been planning to come all along, but hadn’t been in contact with anyone from the current troupe. Their arrival is a welcome sight and seems to take some of the nervousness out of the air.
“It is always a little surreal for me before a show because I remember waiting in line for the shows last year and seeing the troupe milling around,” O’Reilly says, adding that she is a little nervous now because the group still hasn’t warmed up and it is getting close to show time.
Kroll checks his watch and signals the group to move to the area outside Center Grille to warm up. Along the way, they pass the 125-odd people who have begun to line up for the 8 o’clock show. Some are part of the solid fan base that G-PIG has garnered over the last several years; others have heard about the group through word-of-mouth and are here for their first performance. Many people do come back to G-PIG’s shows, which leads to consistent sold-out nights.
Both shows for tonight follow a similar pattern. As the audience takes its seats, Kroll briefs the group outside on each show: In the first, G-PIG won’t do a harold, just a series of games for about half an hour, then the Miami of Ohio troupe will go on and following them a set by Respecto Montalban. In the second show, G-PIG does do a harold during its half-hour set. They then begin their warm up, moving to the back wall for some quick games and to focus their energy on the performance. A participant from the Presidential Classroom program turns the corner and seems alarmed by what is going on in the hallway, but the troupe doesn’t pay him any attention. They move back to Bulldog Alley to begin the show. The lights go down, Braveheart theme music begins, the troupe huddles up one last time for final inspiration and then marches onto the stage.
With improv, the performers are more exposed than in a regular play. There are no sets, no costumes and no special effects to hide behind?it’s simply the performers and the audience. Here, the importance of the group dynamic becomes crucial: Each member is forced to depend on the others and to focus on the scene in order for the whole troupe to look good.
“During a show the feeling [of nervousness] disappears. The audience provides energy, and then they sort of disappear, too, and I’m completely absorbed in what’s going on on the stage, and I’m enjoying it,” Hebden says .
O’Reilly agrees, “During the show, I am not nervous. I just stop thinking and start doing. It is weird, but there is no time for nerves on stage.”
G-PIG’s set starts out as planned. After Kroll’s introductions, the group moves into its games, which move much more quickly than they did in rehearsals. The energy keeps both the troupe and the audience happy, as smiles cross their faces. After a few more games, G-PIG clears the stage for the Miami of Ohio troupe.
They regroup in the back of the room to watch Miami, whose set definitely leaves much to be desired. Trouble with scene development abounds, as the audience as well as the performers, try to figure out who and where the people on stage are. They try to make jokes combining Jesus Christ and economics which succeed in making laughter rare and fail to earn them the a great deal of applause. A bit of a damper overtakes the audience as they prepare for the third set of the evening.
Respecto Montalban takes over and revives the audience. They are a professional troupe and are obviously used to being on-stage with each other. Their set shows high-energy, as they jump right into a harold which features lots of talking and movement by the performers. Respecto’s members finish each other’s sentences as they set up the scene using the suggested word from the audience. Their set brings the audience back into hysterics and finishes the show on a high note.
Following the first show, G-PIG quickly debriefs before beginning the second. The troupe is completely energized to the point of practically glowing. They are fired up for their next show which begins in just 15 minutes. Respecto has really inspired them. They do some quick warm-ups outside of Center Grille and at 10:15 move inside for the second show. Following it, G-PIG does a brief wrap-up, but does not stay around too long, instead choosing to relax, unwind and rest up for the next night’s performances.
The Second Night
Saturday night begins much the same way as Friday. At 7 o’clock, the atmosphere is calmer as ‘80s music blares over the speakers in Bulldog Alley. Everyone in the troupe has his and her shirt, all of the troupes scheduled to perform are here and the biggest problem seems to be making enough space for the nearly 200 people expected to show up.
Like last night, the two shows run similarly; first, the troupe heads out to do its warm-up. The line is so long that it stretches around to Center Grille, forcing the troupe to move into an adjacent stairwell to do its warm-ups. Kroll decides a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is in order to take advantage not only of everyone’s energy but also the acoustics of the stairwell. As this song somehow morphs into “Hava Nagilah” then “There’s a Hole in the Bucket” and “Home on the Range,” the adrenaline that is pumping through these eight performers surfaces. It stays with them as they enter the theater for the third time, this time with Queen’s “We Will Rock You” as the theme music. The audience’s anticipation turns into laughter as G-PIG’s set comes and goes. Littleman, an all-male group of former G-PIGers who have managed to successfully continue working in the comedy arena, then arrives to offer its own style of humor that is reminiscent of The State. During both shows G-PIG joins the audience to watch them and Respecto who comes on next. You can see the admiration on Bruffee and Kroll’s faces?they know that these guys have done what they do well and have continued to do it. Both Respecto and Littleman serve as a contrast to G-PIG. Their comedy is much more polished and developed than the college troupe’s, which is not unexpected. G-PIG is not perfect, evidenced by occassional moments where they struggle for a funny line or to make a seen, but the group shows signs of being on the right track to getting even better.
The second show, the last in ImprovFest, finishes off with a “jam session,” that gives all three troupes free reign to work together for laughs. You can see the excitement of the G-PIG performers as they act in and watch scenes with different combinations of college students, alumni and professionals that continue to entertain the audience.
Following the show the troupes take time to chat with each other one last time. G-PIG has not only performed to its potential as a college troupe, but also picked up techniques and areas of improvement to continue working on. Their willingness to self-evaluate and openness to learning gives them promise for the future. They are already beginning to anticipate their next show on April 21.