Comedy improv requires training and groundwork, which looks a lot like this:
Five people, after work and relieved briefly of parental duties, assemble at a coffee house theater to practice making stuff up.
Two of them take the stage. A third stands back and calls out directions.
“Be aware of what the other is doing, and use that,” said Jared Brustad of the improv troupe the Trip Fives.
Pretty much out of the blue, the two on stage, Jen Roser and Ed Doris, concoct their impending Halloween wedding, which we quickly learn will take place in a cemetery — with costumes.
“Hey, hon, can you help with the head?” Jen says.
Improv ebbs and flows in Kansas City, and right now it’s really, really flowing. Some argue it’s getting better locally even as it gets bigger.
Exhibit 1 is a competitive event called Improv Thunderdome, which starts a new season tonight at the Westport CoffeeHouse.These shows sell out
Improv is largely a part-time gig. But that doesn’t mean it’s amateurish.
Brustad and Doris are improv veterans in town. Beyond their success with the Trip Fives, who practiced Monday night, they’re the instigators and lever-pullers behind Thunderdome, which thus far is a big little success story.
The first two four-month seasons sold out the coffee house theater, which seats about 100.
“I would have been happy with 30 people and just being able to pay the rent,” Doris said. “But all of a sudden it blew up.”
Maybe the struggling economy has some of us looking for laughs — and others of us looking to make people laugh.
Thunderdome — harkening to that Mad Max movie’s gladiator-style arena — is presented in a “season,” four competitive shows, one a month.
In improv, performers often use audience suggestions and games to improvise a skit.
In each of the first three shows, three troupes perform their own half-hour sets. Audience members, issued ballots as they arrive, vote for their favorite. Votes are counted and the winner announced at each show.
At the fourth and final contest, the winners of the first three rounds vie for the Thunderdome title and a WWF-ish belt tricked out by Brustad. Again, the audience chooses. (The three finalists also get a share of ticket sales.)
That’s nine troupes in all. Brustad, who does the booking, said he doesn’t have trouble filling the slots with talented troupes from a growing improv community.
The format is based on a Philadelphia competition called Troika, Brustad said, and it’s producing bigger-than-usual audiences, creative and experimental material and broad participation among performers.
Doris called it “almost the democratization of improv.” Established troupes compete, but so do troupes formed specifically for Thunderdome. A few performers are relatively new to improv.
“Almost” because Thunderdome is not an open-mic night. Like stand-up, not everybody can do improv. It requires smarts, skills and practice.These things take time
Take Jessica Robins, 26-year-old mother of two, who participated in the first two seasons of the improv competition. Involved in community theater, Robins was recruited to join the Roving Imp Theater, a locus of area improv, in Bonner Springs.
In Season 2, Robins and friend Jennifer Honeycutt were a two-person team called Fluffer Nutter.
“I’m still getting recognized for that,” Robins said. “We didn’t win that round, but it’s creating opportunities for us. I’ve only been doing this for two years, so my main goal right now is to improve. This is not something you learn overnight.”
Cindy Paasch is 23 and started an improv group as a student at Rockhurst University. She graduated in 2007, and the troupe, Holy Cow! Improv, expanded beyond its university roots.
The troupe is one of tonight’s competitors, up against skilled and innovative opponents Kill the DJ (veterans from Westport’s ComedyCity) and Scriptease, two-time Thunderdome finalists.
Paasch, a Bank of America employee by day, is excited for the opportunity.
“We’re just now 3 years old,” she said, “still babies.”
While Paasch has a job, she hasn’t decided on a career — “children’s author, wacky college professor?” But she knows what she likes about improv.
“The unexpected aspect of it really drives me,” she said. “It takes the scariness and makes it really exciting, like you’re on a roller coaster. To hear an audience laugh so hard they’re crying, that’s an amazing experience.”Trust me
No doubt Thunderdome offers excellent exposure for troupes, Brustad said, that probably will build audiences overall. Partisan fans who come to support a particular troupe end up enjoying the comedy of other performers, too, he said.
Doris and Brustad, both in their early 30s, started performing together in 1996. After four years in the Air Force, Doris returned to Kansas City and formed the Trip Fives in 2005. Other members are Roser, Megan Mercer and Tim Lemke.
Brustad is back in school for graphic design. His wife is a nurse, and they have a 5-year-old son. Besides his Air Force career, Doris has sold insurance and currently is a server at Grand Street Café. Brustad and Roser are products of the Shawnee Mission West High School forensics program, where “Saturday Night Live’s” Jason Sudeikis got his early start. Doris and Lemke did forensics at Shawnee Mission Northwest.
Until this season, the Trip Fives haven’t competed in Thunderdome. But a subset of the group is signed up for the March round, and they will be formidable contestants.
On-stage trust is a chief attribute of successful improv troupes. The Trip Fives have the trust thing down, they say, partly from working and hanging out together for so long.
“You have to know you can throw anything out there and the other person is going to agree to it and run with it,” Brustad said.
But there’s also a benefit to mixing things up, staying fresh. Brustad and Doris are hatching a new format for Thunderdome’s fourth season later this year that does just that — an improv draft, like a sports fantasy league.
The ultimate goal of all this? Simple, Doris said. To tap new sources of creativity, to push innovation, to strengthen the improv scene in Kansas City.
And, of course, somebody might just get famous.
“Who can be the next Jason Sudeikis?” Doris said. “It could be someone who comes out of Thunderdome.”
All events are at Westport CoffeeHouse, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave. Tickets are $10. Call 913-375-5168. Past shows have sold out.Round 1
Holy Cow! Improv vs. Kill the DJ vs. Scriptease
Also tonight at Westport CoffeeHouse: the Trip Fives and Makeshift Militia, 6:30 p.m.Round 2
9 p.m. Feb. 14
Babel Fish vs. Prompt and Circumstances vs. Stitch TacticsRound 3
8 p.m. March 14
Those People vs. the Trip Threes vs. Trivial Prov-suitRound 4
9 p.m. April 11
Winners from first three rounds vie for the championship.
Best of Full Frontal Comedy: Ten Years!
H Block City Stage at Union Station
Tickets: $15 (may sell out)
816-460-2020;www.unionstation.orgThe Roving Imp Theater in Bonner Springs
7 p.m. Bibliocast; 9 p.m. the Hypothetical 7
913-441-2309;www.rovingimp.comImprov Sports at ComedyCity
817 Westport Road, inside Westport Flea Market
Tickets: $10 for 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows, $13 for 7:30 p.m. show
Funny isn’t enough. Here are tips for getting started from veteran improviser Keith Curtis:1.
Go to as many improv shows as you can. More than two dozen troupes, groups and venues are listed at www.kcimprov .blogspot.com.2.
Participate in the “Improv Gym” for beginners and veterans from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays at Eljay’s River Market Coffeehouse, 412 Delaware St. Cost is $2.3. Consider classes at the Roving Imp Theater in Bonner Springs. Go to www.rovingimp.com
Introduce yourself to performers after shows. They love to talk improv.5.
E-mail questions to kansascityimprov@ gmail.com.