Stars, stripes and slick scene swipes

My first lung-full of hot, dry Chicago air, and the neon glare of a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise (seemingly the second largest controlling entity in the USA, aside from the president himself) sent a shiver of excitement right down my spine. It didn’t matter that we were jet-lagged, heavily-bagged and a little disorientated; we had finally begun the first leg of our whirlwind tour of America’s east coast!

Adam – a native imp back on home territory – was quick to establish priorities. So, after dumping our luggage in our hostel, we were introduced to a national delicacy: “Chipolte”! This bangin’ burrito place was to be just the first of many Mexican restaurants Adam took us to throughout our tour, and the portion sizes never disappointed! (So much beany goodness…)

Despite our sleep-deprived state, we dedicated improv-troopers marched on down to the Improv Olympic theatre – a theatre dedicated to our beloved craft – to watch the Americans do what they do best. That is, of course, non-narrative long forms, performed by talented groups such as the Deltones! During our stay, we witnessed Harolds, Armandos[1] (a personal favourite being the “Armando Diaz Experience and Hootenanny”), touching personal monologues and some wonderful character work. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Armando on our second night was the monologist’s bare-faced candidness, and willingness to share intimate details about his life, which were then sensitively, and hilariously picked apart and used to inspire scene work.

Soon, it was our turn to take to the stage: It was thrilling to perform in front of an audience who were so utterly willing to shout out suggestions, and utilise the strange addition of doors along the back wall of the stage! The imps were so excited about the doors that opened and closed “just like real doors” on the set that we spent the first 5 minutes of our warm up running in and out of them… (We vowed to make the Wheatsheaf install similar appendages to our tiny stage) We were ready to learn, not only new improv skills, but also how to play WhirlyBall – a mad and competitive American sport in which teams of bumpercars attempt to hurl a ball into a net with lacrosse sticks. However, I think I speak for all of us when I say that nothing could have prepared us for the bold, blunt brilliance of Chicago’s very own Susan Messing, and her workshop. With Messing, we were encouraged to make big character decisions and stick to our guns on stage. If you “make a funny”, you need to stop and really explore what that throw away comment meant; does your character kill puppies for fun? Let’s see it then! Sometimes dark, but always hilarious, we left Chicago with much to mentally munch on during the two flights towards Providence…

Ahhh Providence, home to the Improv festival at which we would have the privilege of performing two nights in a row. And what an audience they were! Each night, we were exposed to the most stunning array of skills; narratives and free-form, improvised dance, quirky spin off scenes and genius tap outs, from groups all around the country. The first night, we whipped out some of our snappy short form. However, on the second night, we attempted an Armando, having been so inspired by the enthusiasm and talent surrounding us. Improvisers by night, but eager tourists by day, we went on a very steep walk up to Brown University, and around downtown Providence. We were led by Deena – an absolute marvel of a woman, doing tours 20 years into her retirement – who brought a town suffused with religious and colonial history to life. We were, nevertheless, quick to counter-balance such interesting culture with Providence’s humungous Mall… to eat more Mexican food… (Curse you Taco Bell!)

It seemed as if no time had passed until we were zooming down the highway towards the prestigious university of Princeton. Little did we know that Adam Mastroianni, an ex-student of Princeton and current director of the Imps, would be such a BNOC! We were welcomed onto campus with unbelievable hospitality by his old improv troupe Quipfire, and dispersed into the crowds of a Princeton Lawn Party, in full swing. There was music blaring in front of every eating house, sorority and frat house, endless food and drink, not to mention a huge ‘festival style’ main stage. Partying on down with Quipfire made us feel somewhat as if we had stumbled onto a movie set, with the stereotypical red plastic cups of beer (ft. in Clueless and suchlike) causing particular excitement. That being said, the most surreal moment of the trip for me had to be performing in the esteemed McCarter theatre, in front of over 800 people, alongside Quipfire and the Cambridge Footlights! A sea of smiling faces gazed back at us as we cavorted around stage, as only the Imps can; delighting in such an exciting opportunity. By day, we were guided round campus, and truly grew to love both the university, and our charming hosts, who treated us to Princeton hoodies, cupcakes with our logo on them, pizza bigger than my torso, and above all, genuine kindness. Safe to say, Quipfire will always have a lil’ place in our impish hearts…

With performances over, it was time to slap on our tourist caps, our “I <3 NY” t-shirts, and prepare our camera lenses for some serious New York exploration-ing. It was impossible not to feel dwarfed by the towering sky-scrapers looming on either side of the ‘sidewalk’[2], and the gloriously brash personalities of commuting New Yorkers. With sumptuous smells luring us in every direction (the little Jewish girl inside me inexorably drawn to the sweet smelling bagels and lochen soup) and so many sights to see, we packed our days full of sight-seeing and taste-tasting. But never fear. The Imps were still on duty. Indeed, on our first night in The Big Apple, we went to see a whopping three hours of Harolds (a tripartite structured long form). We were even lucky enough to be taught a new form – the very slick “Cat’s Cradle” - by the Upright Citizens Brigade’s finest Christian Capozzoli in another brilliant workshop. “What is a Cat’s Cradle?” I hear ye cry! Well, my friends, you shall just have to roll on down to the Wheatsheaf on Mondays this term to find out…

Needless to say, this two weeks has been the most jam-packed, exhilarating, life-lesson-learning trip I have ever been on. Yet as I attempt to chart our journey from place to place, I am left with the overwhelming inability to express just how much it changed me. Indeed, not only me, but our group dynamic. I love the Imps, and I love them not only as performers, but as genuine friends. Not a second passes without a smile, a song, or a snort of laughter, and no matter what stupid thing you suggest, everyone jumps on the band wagon 100% until you make something fun. As cheesy as it may sound, we are all somewhat governed by the central tenets of Improv: support your partner, make them look good, and always, ALWAYS say “yes and…”

 

[1] Later in the trip, we were to find out that the famous Armando Diaz – inspiration for the popular non-narrative form – was not an improv maverick, or genius, but instead some bloke that told tangential, quirky stories, which a group of improvisers found inspiring to work with! (Love me a bit of trivia)

[2] It appears I also learnt to speak American during our trip

 

By Francesca Forristal