Being a class clown for a grade

Yo' Mama's Cookin' learns the art of improvisation while serving up a dash of unscripted humor for audiences at Howard Community College.

Howard Live

April 01, 2005|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two actors are on stage. They have no idea what their lines are or what scene is taking place and no props to give them clues. The audience is asked for location ideas. Gettysburg is chosen.


"Even though I know it's a re-enactment, you get out there and kill all them rebels," said Mike Sachs, a member of Yo' Mama's Cookin', an improvisational comedy troupe that performs at Howard Community College, during a skit called "Two Person Speed Up."

His scene partner, Kristen Burke, smiled as she took her place, kneeling down with an imaginary gun in her hand.

"You can't be happy killing rebels," she said. "Listen. That one just said bad things about your mother. And the one over there bad-mouthed your dog."

"About my dog?!" Burke replied as the scene played out.

The nearly sold-out audience at the season premiere last month howled with laughter.

Unpredictable humor

In improv - as it is more commonly known - there are no scripts. The actors come up with scenes and ad-lib their lines. There is no predicting what direction a scene will go; there is no predicting whether it will be funny.

The 10 troupe members participated in 14 theater games at last month's opening. In "Two Person Speed Up," two players were given a location. This time, it was Gettysburg.

Then they came up with a scene on the spot. After they performed it once, they had to keep performing it with their time limit getting shorter each time. The point was to get to the heart of the scene quickly and to be funny.

The actors, all students in HCC's Improv II theater class, are trained to work together and think on their feet, said Bruce Nelson, the shows' creator and co-director. They had to audition before joining the troupe.

"We look for people who are willing to share on stage," Nelson said.

Co-director Jenny Male said the troupe uses people "that are not spotlight hogs."

"You have to know when to be quiet and hold your peace," Male said.

However, the stage was far from quiet when the students took their places. Whether it was slapstick physical comedy or verbal plays on words, the show was lively and constantly changing for 60 minutes.

Before each game begins, the audience is asked to come up with a relationship, occupation, location or other ideas for the players to perform. Audience members shout out ideas, and the game's host chooses a setting.

In a game called Sit, Stand, Kneel and Lie Down, the audience calls out location ideas. Wal-Mart, a sauna, a ski slope, were all shouted out by the enthusiastic crowd. Wal-Mart was chosen. The four actors, Lindsey Nixon, Jeff Klima, Kristen Burke and Selene Christenson each took one of the positions (sitting, standing, kneeling and lying down). Throughout the skit, they changed positions with each line they said.

In Actor's Nightmare, a verbal game, one player read a random page from a book, while the other player reacted. The audience chose the book and the page number from a few choices on stage. While one read from the page, the other made it fit. Somehow, it all worked.

Helping Hands, a more slapstick, physical game, ended the show. Lindsey Hall stood behind Jamie Driskill and became his hands, while he acting like a woman applied make-up and practiced table manners while preparing for a first date.

Of course, makeup ended up all over his face, lipstick on his forehead, blush on his chin. And, when he tried to eat his salad, he missed his mouth. While the outcome might be a bit predictable, getting there is always new.

"[While performing], you have to go with your instincts," said Klima, a 20-year-old Ellicott City resident who is a part-time general studies student. "You don't have time to think. You never know what the audience will give you."

While the troupe can't rehearse in the traditional sense, its members practice taking different roles in the games. They have found that each player has different strengths. Some are better at verbal comedy, and some are better at physical, Klima said.

Their reasons for performing are varied also. While some want to become professional actors, others are there for fun.

"It's a great escape from reality," said Burke, 21, a Laurel resident who is majoring in English. "When you are up there playing games, you are thinking too fast to think about what's wrong with life."

"It's really creative," said Driskill, 18. "I'm not good at drawing or writing. But I'm really good at getting up on stage, acting like an idiot and making people laugh."

But there are things the players must remember.

"There are three basic rules," said Ellicott City resident Gavin Shown, 19, who has a double major in theater performance and computer support technology. "Always agree and build [with your scene partner], don't always say the first thing that comes to mind, and keep it G-rated.

"[Improv] really helps you have faster reflexes and develop comic timing," Shown added.

Eldersburg resident Caitlyn James, 20, and sociology major Joseph Nkwanyuo make up the rest of the team.

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