The lights are beating down as Ross senior Lauren Barrett and her teammates in Midnight Book Club stand frozen in place on stage. Sweat drips down her face as the person whose hands fatefully clapped moments before carefully decides how he or she will approach the situation. Seconds later Barrett has moved off stage and the next scene with new characters and players is already unfolding before the audience’s eyes.
An example of one of the many kinds of improv university improvisational groups like ComCo and MBC perform, this skit involves two or more members of the group acting out strange and hilarious storylines that begin, grow and progress from a word suggested by the audience. The interactions can range from two moms at Lollapalooza to parents casually talking about how much they can’t stand their son as the players continuously tag one another in and out of scenes. But unlike short-form in which bits have no relation to each other, the ideal goal of long-form improv is to tie the unrelated events and characters together in the end in order to create a storyline that originated from nothing but group member’s imaginations and gut reactions.
“So many people at Michigan are interested in comedy but have had limited exposure to it because it’s centered in LA, Chicago and New York. That’s why I’m so excited to have a festival here,” Barrett said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “Improv can be an artform especially when it goes right.”
Former president of the University’s improv group Midnight Book Club and brand ambassador for Funny or Die University of Michigan, Barrett has been interested in improvisation and comedy since the age of 14 and is now able to bring the University its first annual improv festival. Due to a stroke of luck in the form of the Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company, Barrett and fellow improvisers from groups around campus had seized the opportunity to bring comedy to the mainstage of Rackham Auditorium on March 26.
“The Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company reached out to Kelsey Fox, a member of ComCo and asked how to get a show here on campus,” Barrett said. “Rather than forward that information onto the University we kind of just grabbed onto it.”
Along with LSA sophomore Kelsey Fox and LSA senior Ryan McDonough, Barrett reached out to several other groups not only from the University but other schools and independent companies, as well.
“We want this to be the first of a long series of festivals. The idea is that we’ll get the groundwork set with a couple of Michigan teams, a couple of other schools, a couple independent teams and a couple of professional teams. And from there it’ll just keep growing,” Barrett said.
With teams such as University of Iowa’s Paperback Rhino and George Washington University’s receSs, this festival will present not only the skilled comedians that are hidden on our campus and others, but the skills of professional independent groups as well.
ImprovOlympic and Second City, the two biggest performance theaters in improvisational comedy, both centered in Chicago, have produced comedians ranging from Del Close to Gilda Radner to Chris Farley. Now, they serve as places in which improvisers can get together and create. Independent groups from iO like Alterboyz and Wet Bus are two that Barrett, Fox and McDonough have reached out to to perform at Rackham Auditorium this Saturday.
Alterboyz, an independent, all-female team, and Wet Bus, an iO team housing some of Midnight Book Club’s founding members, are performing in twenty-five minute sets besides receSs, Paperback Rhino, the University’s own Comco, Midnight Book Club and Funny or Die University of Michigan, with UCB Touring Company rounding out the event in a 90-minute set.
Through grants and sponsorship from various University organizations, Fox, Barrett and McDonough have managed to raise over $9,000. Funds will cover everything from props to airport transportation for the various groups.
Up until two and a half months ago, this festival barely existed other than hypothetical situations dreamt up by Barrett and other improvisers. But once UCB Touring Company reached out, the event grew swiftly and chaotically as it overcame many of the time and space constraints with which it was presented. Because of this, Barrett remains optimistic about the potential for future festivals.
“Next year, I want to get more improv groups on campus involved. Every single group on campus that has a call to comedy has a stake in this festival,” Barrett said. “We found out two and a half months ago about UCB — this festival didn’t exist until then. We just wanted to make it happen so right now it’s at it’s smallest stage but we want to make it big.”
What differs from the typical University events put on at Rackham and Hill Auditorium is that this is improvisational comedy — it is silly and strange and unpredictable. Unrehearsed and on the spot, teammates play off one another’s visceral decisions. Although most of the time it is for the hilarity of the audience, there is also an undertone of caution that must be exercised in comedy on college campuses, especially when performed in this large a magnitude.
“In terms of what material is okay … in general we’re on a college campus so we have to keep in mind that one in so many people have been affected by something,” Barrett said. “At my age, my experiences are too narrow to make a thoughtful comment on the spot about a certain issue. My rule of thumb is just don’t. If you’re good enough you won’t have to rely on controversial humor to make the audience feel interested. There’s a common expression that goes, ‘Unless you’re about to make a comment about race at the Key & Peele level, just don’t.’ ”
And this is an accurate evaluation to make, since well-intentioned comedy can be easily misinterpreted and easily taken too far. But this is not the atmosphere Barrett, Fox, Donough and the participants are trying to create. Rather, it will be one of fun and funniness, a point Barrett passionately emphasized.
“Here’s your exposition: The audience can expect the event to be on March 26, in Rackham Auditorium, from 6-7:30 pm and then 9-11:30 pm. The audience can expect to have fun because that’s what matters most. They can expect to live, laugh, love, cry, sob — it’ll be the pursuit of life, love and happiness but most of all, it’ll just be fun.”
There is endless talent at the University found in the countless improvisation groups that hold their performances in backrooms of the Michigan Union and classrooms in the Ross School of Business. Through this festival, Barrett and her co-conspirators will be bringing these intimate, concealed environments to the mainstage in a grand endeavor to begin a new tradition at the University.