Rare Bird Show

"Philly's suddenly hot improv scene comes together for a citywide festival."
Philadelphia Weekly, 4-27-2005
Laugh Riot
by Jeffrey Barg

In another setting you could probably be forgiven for thinking Mike Young is a freak-or at least foreign. Hips swinging, hands flapping, arms akimbo and babbling gibberish, he looks like he's completely lost control of his physical faculties. After a minute or so, a whistle blows. "You're hula-hooping with a mud flap in place of the hula hoop while balancing a baby on your head!" Young's teammate Kris O'Brien declares triumphantly. Shockingly, she's correct, and the Saturday-night ComedySportz audience cheers.

Young, O'Brien and Comedy-Sportz Philadelphia co-founder Jim Carpenter are engaged in the classic improv-comedy game Five Things, best described as a cracked-out version of Charades.
When O'Brien was out of the room, the audience offered up five activities as random as they could muster: playing soccer in a tutu with a brick in place of the ball; playing volleyball over a washing machine against Hanson; shaving in the woods with string cheese; and bungee-jumping off of Liberty Place using a badger instead of a bungee cord. Then O'Brien returned, while Young and Carpenter pantomimed the five activities.
In an impressive display, O'Brien gets almost all of them right, mistaking only jumping off of Liberty Place for looking up at the Statue of Liberty, and instead of Hanson, she thinks it's the Andrews Sisters. Honest mistakes, all.

While the nationally franchised ComedySportz has been in Philadelphia for more than 10 years, it's in just the last few months that the improv comedy scene has really begun to take off here.
"New York, Chicago, North Carolina and Miami all have large improv festivals that generate national attention. We want to do the same thing here," says 27-year-old Matt Nelson, a member of local improv troupes the Village Idiutz, the Ninjas and Hypnotoad, and the creator of PhillyImprov.com, a new improv networking and information site.

"Philadelphia is a nice middle ground on the Eastern seaboard," he says. "You're seeing a lot of people from these other areas starting to root down here, creating this nice melting pot that's really eclectic."
The Village Idiutz are the coordinators behind F. Harold, this weekend's improv comedy festival at the Actors Center in Old City. Named for a 19th-century local actor legendary for veering wildly from the script, the festival is the first of its kind in Philly, with 11 groups and two workshops over a two-day period.

"Improv has been here for some time, and there have been separate groups, but there hasn't really been a community," says 23-year-old Alexis Simpson, who's helping coordinate F. Harold. She's a member of the Village Idiutz, Hypnotoad and Rare Bird Show, and founded Haverford College group the Throng when she was a student there.

"There's enough improv in this city that there should be a centralized way to enjoy it," she says. "There's a lot of talk, but not a lot of action, so this festival is that talk finally being translated into an actual event."
The organizers hope that, if this weekend goes well, they can draw bigger acts and crowds to a larger festival in October. They see it as an opportunity to promote not just our city's improv on a national stage, but Philadelphia itself.

"Once you start bringing in groups from other cities, they have their own fan bases that they bring with them," says Nelson. "We hope this can really spur economic development and tourism to the area."
"Please don't be funny," says Comedy-Sportz Philadelphia co-founder Bobbi Block. "The minute you try to be funny, you're not funny." Block teaches courses in improv at the University of the Arts.

"Improv is a skill," she continues. "It's not something you have or you don't have. You can actually learn to be more spontaneous." She says sometimes people take improv classes not to perform but to hone their spontaneity.
The curly-haired Block has been working at improv in Philly for 15 years. A few years after co-founding the local branch of ComedySportz, which specializes in short-form improv, Block co-founded LunchLady Doris, which was then the city's first long-form troupe.
Short form consists of five- to 10-minute games driven by audience suggestions, while long form will take a single word or phrase from the audience and build an entire show around that one element.

"Think 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' vs. the Upright Citizens Brigade," says Simpson.

"In short form there are a lot of quick, witty, pop-culture-driven references," says Block. "Long form is a little more thoughtful. In LunchLady Doris we can go really dark. The beauty of it is we don't know where it's going to go."
In both short form and long form, Block preaches the gospel-as many improv enthusiasts do-of continually reacting to what your scene partner just said or did.
"You need to learn how to be in the moment, to react naturally without judgment," she says. "You can't be worried about if what you just did was funny, or about setting up another joke. You can only react to your partner."

Simpson concurs. "Being good at improv requires more than just being funny," she says. "Because there's no script, the actors need to be able to listen to what's going on." And in this, gender differences can play an important role.

"A majority of men are shitty listeners," says Simpson. "This contributes to female improvisers getting ignored, steamrolled or cast aside into support roles. A lot of female improvisers play the same characters-ditzy girl, little girl, soccer mom from Minnesota, generic wife-over and over again. They don't explore playing male characters-but why would they? There's no instant payoff like there is if a dude puts on a wig."

F. Harold
Fri., April 29, 8pm and 10pm; and Sat., April 30, 2:30pm, 7pm and 8:30pm. $8-$25. With the Cabal, Comedy-Sportz, Elaschtick, GiggleMill, Gurus of Guffaw, LunchLady Doris, Ninjas, Rare Bird Show, the Throng, Village Idiutz + Without a Net. Actors Center, 257 N. Third St. 215.925.7060. www.phillyimprov.com