Oakland improv group The Senseless Bureau isn’t afraid to “cross a lot of lines”
on May 30, 2012
The Senseless Bureau knows how to grip their audience with plays on gender, nuance and innuendo. Their improv show—filled with ad-lib, mime and intuition—is provocative and carefree.
On a Wednesday night at Spice Monkey, a restaurant located in downtown Oakland, just under 40 people have filed into the mezzanine to see the troupe. Eight actors dressed in ordinary street clothes—D. Gregg Doyle, Jenna Shirar, Joe Garrity, Page Frakes, William Dimaculangan, Andrew Pearce, Bryan Bucci, and May Oskan—create the mood in the dimly lit room by positioning themselves under a set of stage lights. On the leather bar table to their left are a few pitchers of beer: payment for the evening.
After claps and cheers from the audience, and then a warm up, they begin playing a longform improvisational game known as the “Harold.” It consists of three unrelated scenes or “beats” and includes a group segment—all of the players must create a scene together based on a cue from the audience.
The troupe begins to gather ideas from the crowd.
“An after school activity.”
“Something that makes you smile.”
“Anything you’re afraid of.”
“Something you fucking hate.”
“How about something that you love doing on the weekends but don’t get enough time to do?” Frakes asks.
That question sticks. The audience begins to name things they love to do.
“Singing gospel?” a woman in the audience yells.
“Singing gospel. What else?” a troupe member replies.
“Halo 3!” another woman cries.
“Halo 3!” four troupe members shout in unison.
“You’re incorporated,” Shirar says.
The players begin to move through several scenes based on the idea of the Halo 3 videogame. Between each scene, a troupe member yells “Freeze!”
“Hi. My name’s Jeff,” Oskan says, lowering her voice to achieve the timbre of a man’s and pretending to join a gamer therapy session.
“Hi Jeff,” everyone in the troupe replies.
“And … ugh. I’m a … ugh. Dude, I can’t say it,” Oskan continues.
“Say it. Say it,” troupe members began to chant in whispers.
“I’m … not … ready,” Oskan says, beginning to shake with emotion.
“Take your time, Jeff. I know. This is hard,” Garrity says.
The game moves through several more scenes: wives arguing with their “gamer” husbands, game developers menacingly changing Halo 3 command keys.
After the Halo sequence is completed, the troupe begins a new improv game known as “Growing and Shrinking,” which starts with one scene, incorporates several others, and then shrinks back to one scene again.
Shirar takes over the stage and with a wave of her hands ushers four male troupe members to line up and take on a military stance. Two have their mouths open, looking horrified, timid, and like they have no idea what’s in store for them.
“Aright, gentleman,” says Shirar. Her voice is deep for this scene—she’s firing off orders while marching back and forth like a general. “I’ve got special orders from the top. We need to collect rag-tag-bunch-of misfit-no good half-wits for a very special mission.”
“It’s from the top, if I haven’t already said that,” she continues. “We’ve got a dangerous mission. It’s coming out of Texas. Mexicans keep sneaking in and we want to keep sneaking them in because they make really good food and they work hard.”
The crowd erupts in laughter.
“But we’ve got to pretend that were trying to keep them out,” she says, inspecting the four guys who are lined up, trying to demonstrate perfect military posture. “So we need a bunch of losers that don’t know nothin’ to pretend to keep them out but really sneak them in.”
“I can bench 480, sir!” says Frakes.
“I’m your guy! I’m your guy! I’m your guy!” Bucci says, flapping both of his arms in the air.
“Oh, you’re all my guy, gentlemen,” Shirar says.
“Let me see your gun form,” Shirar demands. One of the four men begins to sprint in place, another one vogues. “That’s perfect,” Shirar continues. “All right. I’m gonna’ go to the top and let them know everything’s in order. And what do you do when you see a Mexican?”
One of the soldiers has a sort of epileptic fit. The other looks like the classmate who doesn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question—he shrugs his shoulders and stares aimlessly into the crowd. “That’s right. Absolutely nothing!’” Shirar says.
Freeze. The improve group changes course again. Meanwhile the audience laughs; claps, and hollers for a little more. The troupe starts a new game, requesting “a word that makes you happy.”
For the troupe members, happiness comes through this line of work. Members of The Senseless Bureau began delighting—and at times upsetting—Oakland audiences in October, 2011, with shows that are designed to push political buttons and turn audience suggestions into raw comedy. Now strictly Oakland-based, they were originally known as the Berkeley Players. They currently perform mostly out of restaurants in the city.
The members hail from across the Bay Area, with a couple “415ers” and “925ers.” Three members live in Oakland and they practice weekly at Pearce’s house, prepping the structure of every game. Beyond that it’s off the cuff—asking the audience for suggestions or any sort of inspirations that they have.
“To practice improvisation,” Pearce says, “you want to learn the skills, which are often just listening, remembering and reacting to what’s happening on stage rather then trying to plan ahead.”
“If you can do that,” he continues, “be in that moment where you capture what that person is saying, how you react to it, and then bounce back something that seems very obvious to you it tends to be funny.”
The group has been working with a coach, Alex Lamb, for several weeks. “He has made it a sort of labor of love to make us a really great troupe and help tap into what’s real about what we do and find genuine emotion and motivation on stage,” Oskan says. “We’ve all gotten better at listening and escalating things and making the most out of our suggestions.”
They are surprised by each other all the time. “That’s the joy of it,” Pearce says. “If you are doing this, you can’t be thinking about your day job. You can’t be thinking about anything but what’s happening on that stage at that moment. These guys always surprise me. There is always something that makes me laugh out loud.”
Everyone is committed to performing in Oakland and gaining a reputation in the community. “We love what’s happening in downtown Oakland,” Doyle says. “We love that it’s coming back. You walk around and there are actually things happening it’s not like your walking around going, ‘There’s no one here on the streets.’”
No single person considers themselves the founder of the group, which was comprised of five people before Garrity, Bucci and Oskan evolved into regular members. They all have regular day jobs—improv is something they do for fun, a form of catharsis. Pearce calls himself a “highly paid typist” for an animation company in the Bay Area; Frakes is a colorist for a visual effects company; Bucci works for a solar company in the North Bay; Garrity works with production during film festivals; Oskan, an actor from the East Coast, does fundraising for an environmental non-profit in San Francisco; Shirar works as a medical assistant in Danville; Dimaculangan is a software engineer; and Doyle describes himself a “recovering professor” who taught city planning.
The troupe’s audience regularly finds themselves dealing with politics, gender-bending or other sensitive material. But the overall attitude the troupe carries is a willingness to portray anything or try anything once.
“We cross a lot of lines, but we also don’t really care,” says Bucci. “We don’t want to offend anybody by any means. We’re definitely sensitive to that. But I’ll play a women, she’ll play a man.” He points a finger at Oskan. “Whatever.”
“It all comes back to this,” says Oskan, who joined the group in 2011 after being picked out from the audience during their first show in Oakland. “If it’s time to do something, it needs to be done. And if you’re the person to do it, then you’re just the person to do it. If I need to go and be an old blind man—than that’s what I need to do.”
“And if Joe needs to be a pepper or a chipmunk, he is right on that shit,” says Doyle.
There is no “fourth wall” in improv theater—an imaginary wall that separates a performance from an audience—and the group’s show depends largely on suggestions from the audience. “Sometimes they are really high-energy,” Oskan says. “Sometimes they have crazy, dirty ideas and suggestions.”
The audience loves really physical stuff, she says, and the more accurately they read what the audience wants, the better they are going to do.
“Sometimes we’ve slept with them so we know what they want,” Doyle interrupts.
“What?” cries someone.
“That was one time,” says Frakes.
“Just that one group time,” says Doyle.
“And if that means working a little blue, then it means working a little blue,” Oskan finishes, using a performance term for adult humor.
“As far as material being blue,” says Doyle, “we don’t want to exclusively do that, but if it goes there, we celebrate it and just rock it. Occasionally someone will bring a kid or something and we will cut back. We won’t go there a little bit.”
The first venue they performed at in Oakland was at 1015 Clay, a restaurant that lasted for about six months.
“It’s not there anymore?” Shirar asks the troupe.
“I’m pretty sure they closed down right after our performance,” Doyle says.
“It didn’t have anything to do with us. There’s no relation,” Pearce says.
“No. We close places down,” Shirar says. “That’s how good we are.”
The troupe is trying to develop relationships with one or more restaurants in Oakland, their ultimate goal being to land a regular gig at a theater, which would be a good fit for them. “We want a theater that is willing to have us that we can keep building our audience,” Frakes says. “Restaurants are great and having beer around obviously helps. But a theater environment where people are showing up to watch us—they’re there for that, not just randomly drunk and loud.”
The group is hoping to become Oakland’s best-known improv group. But they already have a few competitors, like the Magic Jester Theater, which has monthly shows on second Saturdays at the Temescal Arts Center, often featuring three improv troupes and guest musicians.
“But we are the most regular,” Doyle says of The Senseless Bureau’s performance schedule.
“We eat a lot of fiber,” Shirar says.
“Yeah. Metamucil is the key to our regularity,” Pearce says.
“We are definitely trying to be the most preeminent Oakland troupe,” Doyle says.
“We’re trying to take over,” Shirar says.
“That’s a challenge to the other ones if they’re reading this,” Pearce says.
The troupe performs every first Friday at Mama’s Vietnamese Restaurant at 365 19th Street (right after Art Murmur) from 9 to 11 pm and every fourth Wednesday at Spice Monkey on 1628 Webster Street from 8 to 10 pm.
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