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River City Improv: these alumni earned their ph.d.s in laughter

Petty household conflicts turn Shakespearean and everyday chores become Olympian when an audience meets up with the Calvin Alumni improvisation team. The group, known as River City Improv, specializes in transforming the real, often bland stuff of life into wit, humor and spice.

Calvin College has a relatively short but strong history with "improv," which is a cross between theater and comedy performed in a spontaneous, unrehearsed style. A student improv team was formed in 1988 and rapidly became a hit on campus. In the fall of 1993, four alums of the group got together and decided to revive some of the interaction they had enjoyed as students. According to charter member Jeanne Leep '91, River City Improv originated as an outlet for fun and self expression, but word spread quickly and performance requests began pouring in. They performed more than 70 times in 1996.

Such high demand isn't surprising an improv show is an infectious experience. The team's promotional brochure describes their "wacky comedy" as "...spontaneous combustion that results from...your suggestions and our quick wit." As Leep put it: "We ask the audience to shout out suggestions that become the basis of a sketch that we create before their eyes." This meeting of the minds on stage with those in the audience gives each improv performance with its unique flavor.

The types of things an audience might be asked for include embarrassing problems, locations, panel discussion topics, famous people, things your mother said, verbs, adjectives, well-known quotes, musical genres and household chores. These fragments are then pulled together and given wry, humorous twists on stage.

If the team isn't busy putting themselves on a limb, the audience is sure to do so with some pretty challenging suggestions. At one show, the audience was asked for a verb, an adjective and a noun. The request was simple but the response a stumper: dilly-dallying flamboyant salad shooters. In the sketch, called mime debate, two team members who knew the three words attempted to communicate them charades-style, while two other members, who didn't know the words, kept up a running verbal "debate" on the matter, taking cues from the mimes until they were able to figure out just what their debate topic was.

According to Rick Treur '92, who co-manages River City Improv with Leep, the energy in the room was intense. "The people in the audience were on the edges of their seats the whole time—they really tried to stump us and were enjoying our struggle. The game usually lasts about two minutes but this one lasted ten, with the intensity rising the whole time. When we finally guessed it the entire audience erupted."

If at one show an audience can come up with "dilly-dallying flamboyant salad shooters" and at the next with "parachuting paranoid turtles" for the same skit, it's easy to imagine that if you've seen one improv show you haven't seen them all a concept that keeps people coming back for more. Variety is also provided by the group's extensive repertoire, which includes more than 75 different sketches, about 15 of which are scheduled for each performance.

The diverse personalities represented on the team also assure fresh humor and add detail. Only three of the 10 members were communications arts and sciences majors at Calvin, and the careers represented range from computer technology and radio broadcasting to government and speech therapy. "We all have different day jobs which gives us a wider base of material and more chances to connect with the people in the audience," said Leep. "Improv is about everything in the whole wide world—the more you know the more you can bring to the stage."

Despite their diversity, improv team members do represent a unique personality. Most people feel faint and sweaty-palmed at the thought of standing before a crowd and spontaneously turning a household conflict into a Shakespearean scene it's a real-life version of the classic "I forgot my lines for the play" nightmare. But these ten alums willingly subject themselves to such vulnerability. When asked what it takes to perform in such unpredictable circumstances, Leep and Treur agree that quick thinking, an open mind, an adventuresome spirit and a sense of humor are essential. At least a semester of Shakespeare helps, too, which is where Calvin's liberal arts curriculum comes in handy.

"Our liberal arts education has served us extremely well when it comes to knowing something about a wide range of topics," said Leep. "We never know what the audience is going to throw at us. We also keep up to date on current events so we can work things into the skits."

The "research" doesn't stop there. When traveling out of town to do a show, the team tries to find out as much as it can about local industry, community leaders or traditions. Before performing at a wedding reception, the team often gathers information about the bride and groom. Although one might think it an oxymoron, the team also rehearses improv. They get together weekly to make sure everyone is familiar with the rules of each sketch, to come up with new ideas and to do warm-ups and listening exercises. Business matters are also covered at rehearsals.

"We're not rehearsing so we can come up with something really funny to save up for the next show," said Leep. "It's just a matter of working together and honing our skills. Making improv work is really about building each other up, which goes along with our Calvin perspective having respect for other human beings and their ideas. A supportive atmosphere is important on stage."

The venues for River City Improv are as varied as their skits. Private performances include weddings, reunions, banquets and retreats, and the group has also performed at elderly care and special needs homes. They have traveled out of state to places in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois, but most of the performances are in West Michigan. The group occasionally makes appearances at Calvin's Gezon Auditorium, but Leep says they intentionally have branched out into the community.

"We wanted to find our own identity apart from the Calvin student team and have tried to get involved in the community as much as possible," said Leep. The group's "downtown home" is the Ten Weston Gallery, where they perform about once a month.

"We see improv as an opportunity to present a different side of Calvin to the community a lighter side," added Treur. "We are still very much tied to Calvin, which is important. People see the Calvin name on our brochures and they know it will be quality."

The community has welcomed River City Improv with open arms. In 1996 the team was named "West Michigan's Favorite Improv Team" in an annual readers' poll issued by the local arts magazine On The Town. There are four improv teams in town.

One fan, Rhonda Lubberts '91, innocently went to her first River City Improv show more than two years ago. She was hooked by the end of the first sketch and has seen nearly every public performance since.

"What I think is absolutely amazing is how quickly [the team members] can come up with really clever things," said Lubberts. "They're able to take anything and run with it. It's a more intellectually challenging kind of humor. It's also clean, which is so refreshing—comedy has become synonymous with raunchy. Clean humor is funnier and more challenging they don't just fall back on the easy laugh."

Treur said that universal truths are the foundation for the humor. "We try to be very real and truthful, showing profound things in everyday life and human nature," said Treur. "It usually ends up being funny but it's much more than just telling jokes."

To get to the heart of what improv is about, Leep referred to a Mark Twain quip: "The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."

"Humor is a powerful tool it has the power to change the world," Leep said. "We hope that what we do on stage might highlight some truth might make people think in a different way, or somehow have an impact on their lives. All we really hope is that they leave feeling enlightened and have had a good belly laugh somewhere in the midst of it all."

Kristin Bakker ‘92 works part-time at Editors At-Large and as a freelance writer in Grand Rapids.