First annual Improv Festival features groups from around the country
University of Michigan student comedy groups Funny or Die University of Michigan, ComCo and Midnight Book Club hosted the first annual University Improv Festival Saturday at Rackham Auditorium.
Featuring a variety of improv comedy groups from Chicago, New York, University of Iowa, George Washington University and the University, organizers said the festival aimed to bring improv comedy to a wider audience.
LSA sophomore Kelsey Fox, a member of ComCo, said she hoped the event reached a large and diverse portion of the student body.
“We had multiple demographics that we were reaching out to,” Fox said. “I hope that the average Michigan student had a crazy fun time.”
The festival was divided into two parts — one show at 7 p.m. and one at 9 p.m. Student group Funny or Die opened the first part with a sketch about the president of the United States debating with his staff about pre-emptively bombing countries while mispronouncing simple terms such as ‘tank’ and ‘bulletproof,’ drawing a strong response from the crowd to kick off the show.
receSs, a student group from George Washington University, performed next, acting out several sketches including a reenactment of the Last Supper featuring a “Jersey Shore”-styled Jesus, a seminar on sexual misconduct in the workplace and a group of friends debating plans for high school graduation.
GWU senior Kevin Palermo, a member of receSs, said he enjoys improv comedy because of the excitement from performing it.
“It’s a really unique way of expressing yourself creatively,” Palermo said. “There’s nothing quite as risk-filled ... it can go really well or really bad. And when it goes really well, there’s nothing more satisfying.”
Risk-taking paid off as well for Paperback Rhino, a student group from the University of Iowa, who followed receSs. As part of their performance, the group interviewed a member of the audience and acted out sketches based on that audience member’s activities that day, including getting brunch at Angelo’s, ditching her friends to see a movie and receiving a poem from a stranger.
Independent improv comedy groups Wet Bus and Alterboyz, both from Chicago, closed the first part of the festival. Both groups elicited a reaction from the audience by improvising sketches from audience suggestions of cheese and blueberry beer, respectively.
Leila Gorstein, a member of Alterboyz, said connecting to the audience is one of the most important parts of improv.
“For audience members, it’s really enjoyable to watch people living the human experience in a way that they can relate to and understand,” Gorstein said. “That’s the most fun part about it, to take things from your life and use it in a human way.”
Midnight Book Club and ComCo, two students groups from the University, opened the second part of the festival. Midnight Book Club improvised a sketch based on the audience topic suggestion of “infant,” while ComCo performed improv games like “Four Square” consisting of four improv sketches based on audience suggestions.
Upright Citizens Brigade Touring Company, a New York City group featuring Michigan alum Mike Kelton, ended the festival by improvising a two-act performance.
The group’s first act involved the details of an interview with an audience member, a senior from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, about her experiences at the University, including Greek life, the brutality of acting classes and professors that make students cry. The second act incorporated text messages that audience members volunteered to read aloud.
LSA freshman Jeff Sondheimer said he enjoyed the spur-of-the-moment nature of improv.
“(Improv comedy) is real genuine comedy that has to be witnessed to really understand and get the value of,” he said. “I think it’s definitely prime entertainment. It’s good, safe fun.”
Fox, one of the coordinators of the event, said the hosts aimed to create a fun, enjoyable atmosphere and promote the camaraderie that comes from improv comedy.
“Getting to see each other play and see how other teams approach the same thing is the most rewarding thing,” Fox said. “And for people who are interested in pursuing theater, film, comedy and improv, I hope that they get the chance to meet a bunch of people who are interested in and doing the same things that they want to do ... and take the event as a chance to look at a bunch of people who do things that you love at a very high level.”
In addition to performing, the visiting improv groups said they took the festival as an opportunity to improve their routines by learning from the other groups.
“Seeing other people’s styles really opens your mind,” Palermo said. “We’re going to be talking a lot about what we saw from the other groups, what we liked about what they did ... and incorporate ideas that drive what they do”.
“We all come from a different background,” said Gaby Dixon, another member of Alterboyz. “But making people laugh is a very universal thing.”