Starting at the beginning of October, members of local improv group Morally Improv-erished Inc. have found a new way to share their talent with the community – improv shows on the first Saturday of every month.
Juneau improviser Eric Caldwell formed Morally Improv-erished in 2004. Mike Christenson joined after being invited by what he called the “group of hooligans” when they first formed.
“I’m not an actor,” Christenson said. “I’m a poet, and I have difficulty memorizing lines, so making lines up seemed like a good way to get around that.”
Caldwell is the artistic director for the Alaska State Improv Festival (AS IF), which began in 2013 as a production of Morally Improv-erished Inc. His interest in the world of improv took shape during the time he spent at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp as a teenager.
“While I didn’t have a chance to pursue it until much later, that experience was positive enough to keep me interested when the time came,” Caldwell said.
Juneau’s improvisers have performed at festivals from Honolulu, Hawaii to Austin, Texas. Caldwell has ventured as far as the Slapdash International Improv Festival in London, where he performed in the International Ensemble. Out of the nine cast members he was the only performer invited from the United States.
“Going to festivals is a critical piece of what we do,” Caldwell said “Each festival is an opportunity to learn from how other people perform, show people what Alaskan improv looks like, and make connections that bring people to Juneau to see our home and let them share their work with our town.”
Last year during their off season, Morally Improv-erished didn’t organize any shows locally. Its members missed having that connection with the community. So this year they decided to reestablish that relationship.
Six members participate in the First Saturday performances altogether, with Christenson taking the lead as the producer.
Each show features a different improv style. For example, the October show featured Inspirobotics, in which the cast riffs on randomly generated motivational quotes. (Yes, really random. There’s an app for that.)
For the January show, Caldwell and others will be performing an improv style he learned at The Nursery Theatre in London. They’re calling it “The Society for the Improvement of Mankind in All Its Flaws and Wonders.” For that show, Caldwell will converse with one of the audience members in an effort to find out their tastes, which will guide the cast as they create the show. Only one thing is sacred in The Society for the Improvement of Mankind in All Its Flaws and Wonders, and that is the audience member in the hot seat. Caldwell said everything and everyone else is fair game.
“(These shows are) a chance for us to show people who may have only been exposed to “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” that improv can be a lot more than what they’re getting from that. It’s theatre without a script. It doesn’t have to be comedy all the time; it can be dramatic and tragic; it can be very, very dark, and I think our shows expose them to that,” Christenson said.
Each show so far, Rhoda Walker and Sharon Early of “Early Walker” have opened. They say they aren’t afraid to “spit and spat at each other” and that they feed off of each other’s energy beautifully.
Early is a retired schoolteacher. She began performing long form improv in 2009 and participated in taking the Morally Improv-erished’s show “One Acts” to the improv festival in Hawaii in 2011. Long form differs from short form improv in that improvisers perform for 25 straight minutes, instead of constantly going to the audience for suggestions and creating three to four minute improv pieces from that interaction.
The group practices weekly: but what exactly does an improv “practice” look like? They can’t exactly rehearse their lines. Instead, they work on skills like scene building and transitions. They also come up with original ideas for new shows.
“After theater rehearsals I would drive home from wherever and try to say my lines,” Early said. “Instead (with improv) I drive and try to look around and pick an object and think about what can come from it. It’s really about learning to be in the moment and draw(ing) from your surroundings and from how you feel.”
Although Christenson is the First Saturday show producer, Caldwell still participates by coaching during practices and jumping in on some of the shows. They just recently welcomed a new member to their group, and are open to anyone interested in improv. Early admits that jumping into improv can be (and often times still is for her) a little intimidating, but she said that “the whole process of discovery” is well worth it “because it’s exciting and so fun!”
“At its core, improv works through trust. Much of our training relies on actively listening, being aware of your environment, identifying your instincts, and supporting the people around you. These skills allow compelling relationships to develop, which allows interesting moments to happen,” Caldwell said.
Christenson’s current working theory for how improv works is as follows: “There is all of this stuff that is located in an imaginary river that flows three or four feet above our head, our collective experiences that we’ve been through, it’s all up there, flowing past and all we have to do is reach up and grab at it! Then just look at what’s in your hands and go from there.”
First Saturday Improv is on the first Saturday of each month at the Gold Town Nickelodeon. Tickets are $10 at local outlets, jahc.org, and at the door. Doors open at 9:15 p.m.
• Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer based in Juneau.