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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source

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There’s something about IMPROVment

A Look Behind the Black Box

Even Case Western Reserve University has a funny bone, and this year marks its 10th birthday. What started as several failed attempts to create a cohesive comedy improvisation group finally emerged in fall 2003 as IMPROVment. Now, the tight-knit and talented student group is looking back on its 10 years of packed performances at Eldred’s Black Box Theater as they prepare for 10th anniversary shows, events, and alumni reunions to take place this upcoming fall semester.

Over the years, the troupe has put on shows with a wide variety of themes. They hold end-of-semester shows, charity shows benefiting organizations such as Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, improv celebrity guest shows, and alumni shows. Last year, they held their first improv festival. Through it all, they have stayed together and grown.

IMPROVment is popular—really popular. Shows are well attended, often uncomfortably packed, and even the most anxiety-ridden biomedical engineering student can be seen hacking up a lung with laughter.

Undoubtedly, there’s something about IMPROVment.

Senior computer science major Anthony Christensen caught his first show as a freshman. The improv fever soon followed.

“Everyone on the troupe seemed so close,” he reminisced. “It looked like they were having a lot of fun on stage, and I wanted to get to participate in that.”

Despite his sometimes-timid exterior and limited acting experience, he decided to try out. “I have always enjoyed joking around and making people laugh, but I’d never actually done anything on stage or for an audience,” he explained. But he sees this as a positive.
“I basically came in with a clean slate as far as performing goes,” Cristensen said. “But I think that has helped me look at things from a unique perspective and separate the drama from the performing.”

It took Christensen two tries to make it on the troupe, but once he did, he never looked back.

Now 11 performers strong, IMPROVment can expect to hold over 40 shows a year, all of which are free. Lines form outside the theater well before each performance starts. Students file in half an hour before the show, chattering excitedly over the background music, and fill every possible nook of the improv cave. Meanwhile, the troupe goes through their “secret rituals” as they warm up.

The opening song finally comes on, the host emerges, and the show begins. The troupe plays games similar to those on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, with plenty of audience participation. Some involve singing, some are heavily movement based, and some feature word play. Together, they make a delicious recipe for entertainment.

“The particular set of games is mixed up every time,” Christensen said, “though we have some favorites that we play more often than others.”

Given the unscripted nature of the evening, sometimes things go wrong. Fumbles are made, jokes are not always funny, but the audience still leaves with their cheeks stuck in semi-permanent smiles.

But getting these full houses and audience reactions is not as easy as the troupe makes it look. While there is no script, practice is still necessary. “In other types of acting, you know what you’re going to say and what you’re going to do,” said Christensen. “Not only that, but you know what others are going to say and do as well. Improvising takes all of that away. So you are more or less completely thinking on your toes.” It is difficult to imagine how a group resting on so much uncertainty can function so well. The trick, as Christensen has experienced, lies in the IMPROVment bond.

“A lot of groups will call themselves a family, but we really take it to an extreme,” Christensen explained. “It’s so important for us to be cohesive, to be able to know what a person is thinking or what they might do on stage.”

The future of IMPROVment rests on the new talent that continues to come out to auditions. Those interested can try out every fall semester in a process that includes one night of preliminary auditions followed by callbacks for those who make the cut.

“We try to get a feel for people’s sense of humor, stage presence, and ability to work with other performers,” Christensen said.

Typically, around 40 people come to preliminary auditions, and half are called back. The current troupe members must unanimously vote for each new member to join.

For Christensen, currently the president, IMPROVment has had practical benefits as well. “I’ve already found that the experience has done a lot for my self-confidence, charisma, and presentation skills,” he explained. “And employers are always intrigued when they see it on my resume.”

Despite the competitive audition process, Christensen hopes that new candidate interest continues to remain high. He is confident that new members are out there, perhaps hiding behind a shy exterior. As Christensen has emphasized, nerves should never stop someone Twith an interest from trying out. His reasoning: “There are no mistakes in improv, only choices.”

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