On the basement stage in Tacoma’s Armory, a half dozen people in T-shirts and jeans are acting out a fantasy. They’re playing random characters from a Dungeons and Dragons game they’ve never seen, acting out a plot from notes someone else took and changing a lot of it as they go.
The group is the cast of Fools Play, a Tacoma comedy improv company that’s celebrating its 23rd birthday on April Fools’ Day. And Friday (April 1) and Saturday, they’ll join six area troupes in the Third annual South Sound Improv Comedy Festival in Olympia’s State Theater, to show us all just how much funnier comedy is if you make it up as you go along.
“Improv is a beautiful thing,” says Laramie Lundy, who’s been with Fools Play for six months. “You can mess up or not follow the storyline and it still works.”
“It’s a really exhilarating experience for the audience,” says Mark Alford, who runs the festival and will perform with Olympia troupe Something Wicked.
“Comedy is really different when you see the material being generated before your eyes,” Alford said. “It’s like a magic show, watching people pull tricks, jokes and stories out of a hat. You take that ride with the actors.”
Not that Fools Play will be re-creating a D&D game at the festival — that was a March gig that ran alongside a Tacoma Actors Rep play, along with live gaming that created the plot.
For the festival, the Tacoma troupe will do a variety of long- and short-form improv that showcases the best of what they do. Alongside them late Saturday will be Something Wicked and OlyImprov, plus Seattle company Unexpected Productions. Friday night features Something Wicked again (the festival is hosted by their home theater, Harlequin), plus three college troupes: Ubiquitous They from University of Puget Sound, the Clay Crows from Pacific Lutheran University and Generation Friends from The Evergreen State College. Local standup comedian Morgan Picton will emcee.
“There aren’t a lot of large-scale festivals outside major cities,” says Alford, Harlequin’s marketing manager, on why he suggested the festival in the first place. “I wanted to bring something like that to Olympia. People don’t realize how awesome our improv scene is around here. There are so many great troupes doing good work.”
Fools Play, which started 23 years ago as a group of high school friends and brothers auditioning for Tacoma theatersports, does shows every month or so, usually in the downtown space they share with Tacoma Youth Theatre. But the work they were doing in March was to bring Dungeons and Dragons games to life — and make them funny. To add to the mix, at any given time, the cast included apprentices in various stages of improv confidence. And so rehearsals flowed between scenes of wizards, elves and dragons, and teaching moments from director Mike Harris.
It turns out that comedy improvisers aren’t born — they learn by trial and error.
“So in the next scene, we have the elf and the dragon-man trying to find the tower where they can get an ostrich feather,” says Steve Smith, playing the wizard that “magically” predicted the plot of each scene (with some help from last night’s game notes).
In come Lundy and Josh Hird. After a bit of aimless conversation, Harris stops them.
“Josh, I’m feeling that your character is too much like the one in the previous scene,” Harris points out.
Hird drops his lurching-zombie mode and turns into an insolent elf with a Cockney accent and an attitude problem. It’s instantly funnier, and when his whining about unfair roles leads to Lundy, as a gruff dragon, finally jumping on Hird’s back to climb the tower, you start to realize the power of improv — an art form that gently pokes fun at life while the actors are poking fun at themselves.
And at the performance, when someone in the audience stands up, introduces himself as the game master and starts pointing out all the errors in the plot, the fourth wall falls down completely, and everyone’s drawn into a temporarily magical space where anything can happen if you go along for the ride.
“It helps me because I’m naturally shy,” says Lundy, who got involved with Fools Play through Dungeons and Dragons. “Doing this helps me push the boundaries. It really builds your character when you have to stand up in front of people and be awkward.”
Doing this helps me push the boundaries. It really builds your character when you have to stand up in front of people and be awkward.”
Laramie Lundy, Fools Play
Katelyn Hoffman, another apprentice who’s playing an excommunicated cleric, agrees that improv stretches you.
“As an actor, it’s scary not to have the script in front of you,” she says. “You’re feeding off the scene’s vibe. I like it because it’s challenging and rewarding and helps me grow as an actor.”
For others in the cast who have nontheater day jobs, it’s a creative outlet.
“I need to produce something, put my own control on something,” says Hird, a chemist by day who’s been with Fools Play since 2007. “It’s creative. I like to be silly.”
As Harris takes the cast through their paces, he reminds them of what really makes improv funny — not gags or charisma, but character and relationships. Oh, and not being afraid to look stupid.
“New people tend to let others take center stage,” says Hird, “but improv is like anything else — you have to fail to get better.”
Improv is like anything else — you have to fail to get better.”
Josh Hird, Fools Play
“The hardest part is getting people who are passionate and committed,” Harris says. “And the trickiest thing to teach is formal techniques, narrative focus. What is the scene about? What does the audience want? What is this character?”
Over the years, Harris and his castmates (there are currently five active members, three apprentices and a long list of former actors) have developed their own techniques, going beyond traditional comedy improv like the “Yes, and …” line and theatersports-based situations. They rehearse most Sunday afternoons, working on flow and analyzing what they’re doing.
But ultimately, as Alford says, this is improv, which means you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
“We really are risking failure in front of an audience,” he says. “So success is all the more exhilarating because we know the risk we’ve been taking. And the audience does too.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti
3rd Annual South Sound Improv Comedy Festival
When: 7 p.m. Friday (April 1) and Saturday.
Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia.
Tickets: $20 single day, $30 two-day, $15 rush tickets available a half hour before curtain.
Fools Play: Improv and Dragons
When: 7 p.m. March 31.
Where: Tacoma Actors Rep, Armory building, 715 S. 11th St., Tacoma.