Improv group does it on its feet

By Larissa Gula

When a group of comedians spontaneously decided to “transform” into zombies before a Monday… When a group of comedians spontaneously decided to “transform” into zombies before a Monday night show and chase their fearful teammates around the Steel City Improv theater, intern Connor McCanlus could only shake his head and say, “You never know what to expect during improv.”

These are words that improv performers live by, especially in Pittsburgh where the improv comedy scene, once tiny and disjointed, has transformed and surprised locals with the ways it’s changed in the last few years.

Improv, short for improvisation, is the performed action of creating something on the spot, usually in response to another person or to how the performer feels.

In recent years, the number of local improv performers has increased in the area. While the city once hosted the same handful of people jumping between troupes, several new improv show stages, including Steel City, have now provided regular performances and a gathering space for more than 10 improv troupes.

Some troupes have two people, such as Tragic Bliss, which features Beth Meenan and Steel City Improv house manager Donald Kingsbury. Other troupes feature as many as seven members, like the Hush Hush Consensus.

Despite the number of troupes, the overlap between groups is still there. For example, Meenan also performs in the Hush Hush Consensus.

“There are a number of people associated with Steel City Improv who do the Thursday night Improv Jam downtown,” McCanlus said. “There’s a lot of overlap with Irony City. And a lot of people on the college scenes find their way to those shows.”

Pittsburgh’s improv scene has developed from the college setting. The comedy show Friday Nite Improvs, or FNI, has been running for 22 years on Pitt’s campus and is the longest-running comedy show in the country, according to the show’s hosts.

Originally, FNI was nothing more than a small group of bored graduate students who wanted to learn improv, explained co-host John Feightner. They would gather on Friday nights, make up silly games on the spot and test each other’s performing abilities, trying to make their buddies laugh as they played for several hours at a time.

Students began to bring friends and classmates, and the small group eventually grew too big to fit into the normal-sized classrooms and dorm rooms. Participants began paying an entrance fee, saving up so they could rent some space on campus.

“They then slowly built a show where anyone could show up and try out improv in a low-stake performance space,” Feightner said.

While a number of those involved in the show are Pitt alumni, FNI, which is not affiliated with Pitt or its theater department, is now run by people who have already graduated — the result of FNI’s rental contracts and insurance.

FNI, which ended its season this year early because of the ongoing bomb threats at Pitt, differs from a number of other improv stages in Pittsburgh. The nature of the show allows anyone to perform during one of six or seven improv games that provide structure for short bursts of on-the-spot comedy, all based on one-word suggestions from the audience.

Ben Mayer, a Pitt graduate who currently works as a lawyer, has hosted FNI since 1998. Throughout the years, Mayer has categorized more than 40 team games, guessing games and story-telling games — just some of the different improv activities.

Mayer’s favorite game to watch is called musical improv. In this game, performers create a silly song on the spot within the context of a scene that a member of the audience suggests.

“A lot of the games are more or less passed along between improv shows and groups,” Feightner said. “A lot of improv groups do play more or less the same game under a different name with minor changes.”

Improv shows use the game system for short-form improv or short comedy scenes. But not every improv show uses this system. Steel City Improv, which opened in January 2011, allows performers to try their hand at long-form improv.

“You still take an audience’s suggestion, but then you spark an entire show on the spot off of that one word,” explained Kingsbury. “A single scene in long-form improv can last over 20 minutes.”

While short-form improv has been long-established in Pittsburgh, long-form improv has increased in popularity recently. The Pittsburgh Improv Jam, which opened two years ago at the Cabaret, also provides a stage for long-form improv.

“What I have noticed is a move away from short-form shows to long-form shows,” said Cabaret manager Randy Kirk, who wanted to provide space for long-form improv precisely for this reason. “So there are more improvised plays or longer scenes with commitment.”

The appeal of long-form is that “you see people… sustain actual scenes,” Kirk explained.

“These are performers who can create something complex out of one word over 20 minutes. It’s like watching a play being created out of nothing,” he said.

While a long-form scene may chronicle two people bonding during their attempt to escape a cave filled with demons, short-form may involve just two minutes of raunchy and silly exchanges between two rival super-villains who bump into each other in the doctor’s office.

But these differences in comedy are why “it’s definitely good that there’s a balance of both in the city,” McCanlus said.

“Short-form is absolutely hilarious,” he said. “I look at it as getting both dinner and dessert, and everyone has a different palate and different tastes.”

It’s not just the local scene that has evolved and changed over the years either. The improvers themselves have changed their performance styles over time as they have learned their craft.

Learning the art of improvisation used to be much trickier. Originally, performers hunted down books in libraries and practiced in shows to learn improv skills. Now, interested performers are told to invest in classes with Steel City when possible.

Liz Labacz, an improvist and co-host at FNI, described a good improv scene as a conversation between two performers who listen and respond to each other; although, she couldn’t describe exactly how that conversations works.

“Both performers need to take turns shaping a scene,” she said. “It’s all about watching for people the same way you do in a conversation. You just know.”

And even after mastering the conversation of good improv, a number of improvers need to learn to break the habit of creating repeat characters and gags to use on stage.

“I think that while every performer has a trick, or a safe zone, you can’t plan anything, and you can’t limit yourself,” McCanlus said. “After a certain point, things stop being improvised, and they become planned, or they become gags.”

There are exceptions to every rule though. Feightner uses several flexible stock characters when performing.

“I play clueless, angry dad a lot,” he said. “I play a lot of dumb guy characters. I also love playing little kids because I love the crazy imaginations they have. I love boastful or dumb characters or kids.”

But whatever a performer’s style and level of experience, the best thing about Pittsburgh’s improv scene is how it welcomes everyone on stage, Kingsbury said.

“[In my opinion,] this is the best place to be for improv,” Kingsbury said on the communal feeling that a smaller city like Pittsburgh offers. “Improv is only going to grow here, and I think we’ll surpass the scenes in Chicago or New York.”