Consensual Improv! Throws out the Script and Brings on the Laughs
Consensual Improv! and Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC) are building a performance relationship and so far, it’s a perfect match.
“It was amazing when Jeff [Patterson] reached out to me, because years before I was involved at Thunder River Theatre, I’d journaled about all of the exciting arts and cultural programming that could take place in a black box performance space. One idea that stood out to me was improv. When Jeff approached me, we had already started discussions about an improv group at TRTC, so it seemed like the perfect time,” says Corey Simpson, TRTC’s artistic director.
Patterson, a success coach based in Aspen, was working on his own project at the same time. In early 2016 he was focused on a busy career filled with coaching and speaking engagements, but says he was “missing his playful creative side.” Remembering the acting career he’d left 20 years earlier, he looked for a class to take and couldn’t find anything that was quite right. Giving himself the advice he’d give to a client, he wondered, “Why don’t I just create it?”
The two men put the word out to friends that they were going to start practicing and, after a couple of sessions, they held official auditions to form Consensual Improv!’s current group of 10. They rehearsed for months before deciding that they were ready for their first performance. Now, a year after their public debut, the group rotates to have six performers in any one show and is performing everywhere from TRTC’s black box stage to the Glenwood Vaudeville Revue to private parties in living rooms. Patterson stresses that the group is made up of a high caliber of talent who are focused on the work and that the “sold-out performances are just a bonus.”
Patterson describes improv as “taking a suggestion from the audience and creating and entertaining and humorizing it into a work of art. Improv, for me, is a great transformer. Improv takes great courage and vulnerability and commitment and those three attributes make for a great life.”
Nina Gabianelli, a grande dame of Aspen’s theater and cabaret scene and now a newly minted improviser with the group, confesses, “It terrified me. The idea of not having a script, not having a character figured out, terrified me. So I signed up.” Her favorite game is New Choice, an improv standard where the players create a scene while the director periodically calls out the words “new choice.” Each time the words are spoken, the actors have to change what they are doing on the fly. “It’s great,” she says. “Someone calls out and tells me to do something different, so it’s much easier to get out of my head.”
So how does one practice for something that is supposed to be off the cuff?
Every Wednesday, members of the group get together. Gabianelli says, “Practice is what makes it become effortless. It’s like my weekly playdate.” They begin by stretching and then move into doing some classic improv warm-ups. Zip, Zap, Zop, for instance, where the code word for passing one direction is Zip, the other is Zap, and to pass it across the circle, Zop. Once the control of the game is passed to you, it is your responsibility to pass it to someone else in the circle by pointing and using the correct word. The game continues until a player uses the wrong word or is caught not paying attention; mistakes are frequently met with generous laughter as the game begins anew.
Another game, dubbed Passing the Energy, is a movement variation of the child’s game of telephone, where the first person starts with an action and it moves around the circle with each player imitating the one immediately before them until the action is completely unrecognizable from the original. And, to warm up into characters and scenes, Freeze Tag has the cast on the back wall while two players create a situation. After they have set up the who, what, and where, a player from the back yells, “Freeze!” and tags one of the players out, taking their place and beginning a new scene.
Once the group ideas are flowing, they settle into longer form scenes and, after each performance, discuss what worked for them and what didn’t. Rehearsals after shows can also involve watching their own performance recordings, breaking down the best parts and analyzing where they feel the group can improve.
Consensual Improv! performances mostly feature the shorter games but, according to Patterson, who is both the director and one of the players, their current focus is on mastering the long form and developing themes that run through the entire show. According to Simpson, “Consensual Improv! has brought younger people through the doors who are looking for the edgier—often funnier—material common to improvisation.” The affordable shows, which run just 75 to 90 minutes, “make for the perfect after-dinner entertainment or the start to a later night on the town.”
Consensual Improv! performer and local middle school drama teacher Cassidy Wiley has offered improv classes for kids through TRTC and, according to Simpson, classes for adults are also a possibility. Simpson notes that “the first rule of improv is ‘yes, and…’ It’s an invaluable philosophy for how to live everyday life, and it has value for kids as well as adults in every situation we face in our community.”
Patterson adds that one of his favorite components of the group is that “it’s not about stage time. It’s about growing and transforming as a person. It’s also about supporting your fellow player and taking risks.”
Auditions are open and according to Patterson, “everyone gets a shot,” though trying to pin down the time and location of those auditions is more challenging. Your best bet is to check out ThunderRiverTheatre.com and go to a show. New performance dates will be posted soon.
Love improv or hate it, one thing is for sure: this is a close-knit group of people who are having a lot of fun. During a rehearsal, while practicing a monologue, player Ryan Honey talked about trust.
“This team is setting the bar for my life in the valley,” he says. He was onstage, he was performing, but it was also clear that he was in the moment sharing a beautiful and vulnerable truth.