Improv troupe Stone Soup makes up comedy on the spot
on May 3, 2011
On a Sunday afternoon in a living room in Berkeley, three fully grown adults are running in circles around a fourth man, wildly flapping their arms and making bird noises. A woman sits on the couch, directing the scene—when she says she wants to see birds, the group complies. Welcome to a rehearsal with Stone Soup, North Oakland’s very own improv troupe.
The three year old, six-person troupe spends the afternoon practicing short scenes and “games” that are based on some kind of gimmick or gag. This rehearsal is in preparation for Stone Soup’s monthly show at the Temescal Arts Center—the next one will take place this Saturday, May 7. Like most improv shows, Stone Soup’s performances include narrative stories improvised with help from the audience. Usually, they ask the crowd for characters, settings, objects, or basic plotlines to incorporate into their acting. What will happen from there, no one can say.
“It’s incredibly energizing,” says Stone Soup member Jonathan Stern. “And people should know, improv and stand-up comedy are wildly different. Stand-up is about the right material. Improv is about listening, acceptance, doing the obvious, and committing to your characters.”
The commitment factor, Stern says, is a pivotal skill. “You have to convince the audience that you are a firefighter and there is a fire, for example. You’re making the scene from nothing—the humor and the audience attraction comes from embodying that character, whatever it is, and accepting that situation, whatever it is.”
Oftentimes, that commitment can mean working through situations that seem odd or completely out of the ordinary. Because improv scenes are built on spontaneous ideas, the plots often twist and turn in strange ways. “In social interactions that people typically have, things are smooth. Flawed interaction is scary to us,” says Stern. “A lot of improv training is overcoming these tendencies to be safe and not take risks, because that is not interesting.”
Stern says that a troupe that’s comfortable with each other has an easier time breaking down these barriers. At Sunday’s rehearsal, friendly vibes fill the room, and it’s obvious that the five Stone Soup members present—the sixth, Alan Becker, is currently working in Kenya—have a relaxed rapport. They offer each other constructive criticism, reminisce about past shows and laugh freely as their fellow actors perform.
Each member has different strengths, and they come from all walks of life, though none of them are full-time actors. Stern works in consulting, while member Adriana Russell is a family therapist. Russell’s sister Jennifer Simmons is an educational psychologist, and member Kara Blanc is an artist. Michael Della Penna is a second grade teacher, and also moonlights as a magician. Stern, Simmons and Russell were members of the East Bay Improv Troupe years before, and broke off to form Stone Soup. From there, they picked up new members and found a home at the Temescal Arts Center.
The crew starts each rehearsal by warming up with a musical number, and then with an exercise where they adopt a single spoken line—in this case, it’s “John, where’s my Tupperware?”—using different film genres and accents. One round has the actors repeating “John, where’s my Tupperware” in their best horror movie whispers. In another, they’ve morphed into a kids’ variety show, bouncing up and down and giving an over-enthusiastic, Sesame Street-like deliverance.
Next, the group goes through the different types of games they will perform during Saturday’s show, stopping to discuss structure and technique along the way. In several of them, Stern asks the audience (yours truly) for suggestions. One game, called Two Small Things/Two Big Things, requires the actors to set up a scene where they treat a normally trivial decision as life-changing, and vice versa. Russell and Blanc take the stage, and Russell starts things off by flipping a coin to pick between two potential husbands—easy! Next, the pair attempts to choose a movie to see, a process that leads to Russell’s character having an emotional meltdown—would seeing a French film make her unpatriotic?!
Other games include Fast Forward/Rewind, in which a group member acting as the scene’s director can pause the action or have the actors go forward and backward in time. The Irish Drinking Song incorporates audience ideas into a boisterous, multi-verse tune—the actors are tasked with making up the lyrics on the fly, some of which are required to rhyme. This week, they worked on a special Mother’s Day edition, where an audience member provides a few details about his or her mother that will be folded into the song.
The rehearsal’s piece de resistance is a fantasy adventure game, in which Stern uses a computerized name and story generator on his laptop to come up with a main character and a quest. The rest is up to the troupe. On this particular day, the computer suggests that the hero be an overprotective town drunk on a mission to find his mother’s stolen silver shawl. Della Penna rises to the occasion, becoming a stumbling wino named Anthony, while his mother, played by Simmons, shivers nearby, shawl-less and afraid.
Blanc narrates the story from the couch, directing the main characters (this is where the birds come in, flying around Anthony the drunk on his journey) and the other members slip seamlessly in and out of the scene as Blanc provides new narrative details. By the end of the scene, they’ve encountered a witch named Cassandra, a goat, a llama, a woodland gnome, and finally returned the shawl to its rightful owner.
Watching the story progress naturally, it becomes evident what a team sport improv really is. The characters play on each other, picking up each other’s cues, remembering tiny snippets of dialogue and reincorporating them later. This ability to listen, absorb and repurpose is perhaps the single most important skill an improv actor can have, says Stern.
“A good improviser is a very good listener—he or she can absorb a subtle comment and bring it back three minutes later,” says Stern. “You have to make sure not to block someone, too. If I say there’s a fire, and someone says, ‘Well, we’re not firemen,’ then you’re in trouble. It’s really hard not to do that, though. You come into a scene with your own ideas, and then you have to be able to react what’s going on.”
Della Penna likens the group’s dynamic to that of an ultimate Frisbee team, which after working together for a long while, the players can more or less anticipate each other’s moves. “We also just genuinely like each other,” adds Blanc, which she said also gives the crowd good vibes.
The Temescal Arts Center holds around 50 or 60 people—an ideal number for an art form that is so intimate and heavy on audience participation. Blanc says that the troupe has regular followers at this point—people who come back over and over again to enjoy another helping of Stone Soup. “The audience is really attached to us,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
To purchase tickets for this weekend’s show, visit Stone Soup’s Web site—and if you’re wondering whether the show is kid-friendly, Della Penna describes a typical show as PG-13.
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