Improv comedy team performs on campus


The Black Squirrel Improv Troupe

Jason Meek

The Black Squirrel Improv Troupe began their show Friday, Nov. 15, with a romantic dinner at, appropriately enough, a squirrel-themed restaurant.

The stage at the Kiva serves as the setting, and the only props are chairs arranged around invisible tables.

“I assume you know why we’re here,” Zach Immel said slowly to his date for the evening. “We are to play the part of a normal human couple. Understand? No thinking about nuts, no thinking about oak trees.”

“I’m trying to clear my mind of nuts,” Katie Rarick said, nodding. “God, they’re so good! Roasted pecans, can I tell you just how great they are?”

“You are making me drool, stop it!”

At the next table over, Maggie Bisesi and Dan Vasu are having problems of their own.

“If you were going to be so rude, I wouldn’t have told you I have a tail,” Bisesi said.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not used to people having tails. That’s a little weird,” Vasu replies. “Is it always like that? Creeping up your back?”

At the far end of the restaurant, Jenna Sawan and Randy Hoover are trading nearly incoherent insults and threats in drunken slurs as they celebrate their anniversary.

Sawan stands up and hails a waiter. “I need another drink!”

“Yeah, she needs another, and I would like another squirrel to eat!” Hoover yelled in an exaggerated Southern drawl.

The squirrel theme was suggested by a member of the audience, and the three pairs of actors have only a few moments to come up with a way to act it out. Nobody—not even the actors themselves—knows where the scene is going or how it will end.

“Make a scene? You think I’m gonna make a scene? Like what? I’m gonna go over here and eat these squirrels raw?” Hoover yelled, going over to Immels’ table and grabbing him by the neck.

And that was just the beginning of the show that night.

The Black Squirrel Improv Troupe, formerly known as the Portage County Players, has been around for 10 years. This group of Kent State students specializes in scripted and unpredictable live comedy shows.

The troupe regularly performs free two-hour improvisational comedy performances, making up their lines as they go.

At the beginning of each skit, the audience is asked for a callout — like the theme of the restaurant in the opening sketch. It’s usually a response to a question such as, “This is a story with a theme that you would encounter in the children’s section” (clowns), or “I like this on my pizza” (pineapple), or “This is stuck in my shoe” (toothpaste).

Once the actors have their callout, they use it to determine the characters, setting, or imaginary props they will use in the sketch.

Each sketch is only a few minutes long, and usually involves two to four performers at a time.

The only part of the show planned out ahead of time is the set list of games to be played. Similar to the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” the games provide the actors with a loose set of rules to direct them.

The restaurant sketch was a game called “Check Please,” in which three couples at the same restaurant are on dates gone wrong. Usually the scene rotates from table to table, offering a short exchange between each pair of actors, but as the scene builds up the couples may start to interact and talk to each other—or eat each other, if one of them happens to be a squirrel.

There are also more structured games like “Interrogation.” One actor leaves the room while the audience decides on their character’s job, a crime they committed, and what object they used to do it. After they come back onstage, two other actors play a pair of cops trying to get the criminal to confess to the crime.

It plays as a guessing game, but at the same time, the police officers and accused criminal are performing in character and creating a story as they play.

Another game, “Slips,” is an audience favorite. During intermission, audience members can write down any phrase they want on a small piece of paper. Once intermission ends, the actors start to perform scenes, during which they pick up the slips at random and say whatever is written on them, no matter how out of left field it is.

Then there are even more open-ended games, such as “Shift Right.” Four performers each lead their own scene based on an audience callout, working in pairs with the person to their right. Each time the bell is rung, the performers “shift right” and start the next scene.

The scenes themselves are straightforward, but the performers have to keep track of the different characters they play as they cycle around and eventually return to continue the earlier stories.

The set list of games for each show is decided before each show during the Black Squirrel Improv Troupe’s twice-weekly practice sessions.

The performers need to become familiar with the different improv games as well as their fellow actors. The better the performers know each other, the better they can work together in a scene.

Dana Bauman, a junior fashion merchandising major, was in her high school’s drama club. She says that performing improv is a very different experience.

“There’s a lot more freedom, definitely,” Bauman said. “There’s not a director or anybody who’s telling you what to do.”

That style makes improv more appealing to some people, such as Bisesi, a sophomore communication studies major.

“In high school, I tried to get involved with theater, and then I realized I hated theater,” Bisesi said. Some of her friends suggested she should try comedy instead, so she joined the improv troupe in college.

“I don’t really like serious stuff that much,” she said.

“In drama you’re doing the same things over and over to practice for the show, and here every single day is a different thing,” said Dan Vasu, a freshman digital media production major.

While regular drama involves memorization, improv requires performers to think on their feet and create characters and scenes on the spot. A lot of improv performers also act in theater, but the open-ended and comedic format of improv is more appealing to some members.

“It’s challenging and fun to be given a script and given a character and learning them, but it’s even more challenging to be given a word and to create a character, a scene, a relationship out of nothing,” said Rachel Barrera, a senior marketing major who has been involved with the troupe since her freshman year.

Barrera discovered the group during her first year on campus while looking for a way to get involved in student activities.

“I wasn’t doing anything at all my fall semester,” Barrera said. “I was just going to class, focusing on my studies, and that sucked.”

She found the improv group on the theater website and started attending meetings, but didn’t get involved right away.

“I basically just showed up and was a quiet audience member for weeks until they forced me to go up and do a game,” Barrera said. “I’m basically a stalker.”

Since her first year, Barrera has become more involved in the troupe and says that it has helped her learn to think on her feet, a skill that’s just as useful in real life.

“That’s part of the reason why we chose ‘Black Squirrel Improv Troupe,’ because when it’s just in letters, it’s ‘B.S. it,’” Barrera said.

Sawan, a senior English major, was inspired to join the improv troupe because she has always loved to watch famous improv comedians such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

“I used to watch improv stuff when I was younger,” said Sawan. “I grew up watching it, and then one day I was brave enough to try out, and it worked out, and I love it, and it’s beautiful.”

Hoover, a senior architecture major, is the current president of the improv troupe. He first tried improv in high school, and attempted it again in his freshman year.

“I wasn’t a super fan of it, but I tried again after my sophomore year. I came back to the team when it was a little bit smaller and I’ve stuck ever since,” Hoover said.

In addition to practicing with the troupe, he has also taken some acting classes and workshops.

Hoover said the hardest part of improv is to keep acting even when a scene is going south and the jokes aren’t getting the right response from the audience.

“The hardest thing about improv is not to take things personally, because good improv comes from your place of vulnerability,” Hoover said. “You’re bearing, really, your real self and how you react to these situations immediately.”

“It’s all on you to create everything. When you don’t do as well as you hoped, it’s so easy to beat yourself up and not go up again,” Barrera said.

Bisesi said, “You have to be inside the scene, not on the outside looking in.”

She said it’s tempting to remove yourself from your role when the scene isn’t going well, but staying in character is the best way to keep the scene from failing.

Austin Williams, a freshman advertising major, is a recent addition to the improv team.

“I saw this quote in the movie theater bathroom,” Williams said. “It was ‘enter a room with nothing to prove.’ For me, that’s the hardest part, because I am new.”

Williams said he tries not to think about himself or compare himself to others around him who have more experience.

“That still takes you away from the scene so you’re not thinking about other people,” Williams said. The best thing to do is focus on the other performers and play off of them to keep the scene going.

Hoover said most people who come to an improv show for the first time, even if they don’t know what it is, usually find they enjoy it.

“It’s honestly probably the most fun thing you could do for free on a Friday night on campus,” he said.

The improv troupe performs regular two-hour shows on campus. They are also available to be hired for gigs in order to raise money for theatrical workshops.

Details about the improv troupe, including upcoming shows, can be found on their Facebook page. The troupe’s next performance will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, December 2 in the KIVA.

Contact Jason Meek at [email protected].