“It really isn’t just people jumping on a stage and trying to make you laugh. It really isn’t," says Dann Sytsma of Crawlspace Theater Productions. "It’s people on stage working together to create a story that’s never been told, that will never be told again. And they want you to experience that with them.”
The Kalamazoo Improv Festival is this Friday and Saturday at Farmers Alley Theatre. On Wednesday, Dann Sytsma and Brian Lam of Crawlspace performed some improv in the WMUK studio without notes or a script. And they had just about as much energy as they do on stage. Improv theatre is where performers take one or two suggestions from the audience and then use it in a scene.
Crawlspace will perform with fourteen other improv troupes at the annual Kalamazoo Improv Festival this weekend. Sytsma says most of the groups will do what’s called long-form improv.
“So there’s a difference in styles of improv. There’s short form, which is more of the Whose Line Is It Anyway? style of improv. So, generally the scenes last probably five minutes at the most, you know, sometimes on a rare occasion they’ll go longer," says Sytsma. "But long form improv you get a suggestion from the audience and it goes from 20 to 30 minutes, with scene after scene after scene that people are creating that all kind of stem from that initial suggestion but it just kind of goes in its own direction.”
One of the most important things in improv is what Sytsma and Lam call “Yes, and.” This is where one person agrees to what a performer has done in a scene and adds to it.
“You know, somebody comes in the door and says, ‘I’ve got a lot of money and I want to spend it at your store.’ Ok, you’re somehow running a store. If you were to say something like, ‘Uh, well welcome to the DMV.’ Clearly that’s not a store, so you’ve just negated them," Sytsma says. "You’ve essentially said ‘no’ to what they just came in with. But if you said, ‘Well great, cause we just got a new shipment of frog toenails’—then you’re saying ‘Yes. Ok, I’m acknowledging that this is a store, which you just implied. And then I’m building on it and saying what kind of store it is.’”
Improvisers also try to help the audience visualize the scene with things like invisible props.
“That’s something I still struggle with," says Lam. "When we start shoveling, I started shoveling with a, you know…where did that shovel come from? It just appeared in my hand. Really good improvisers know that you have to go pick it up. Or the audience is like, ‘What is going on?’ The more real that you make the scene feel just with the object and the environment, the more that the audience can see what you’re creating.”
Lam says one big myth about improv is that performers don’t rehearse.
“People always say, ‘What do you mean you go to improv rehearsal?’ And we’re not memorizing lines, we’re not or anything. We’re examining these techniques that we bring to a scene and seeing which of these techniques resonates and that we’re comfortable with," he says. "And it’s been great. We’ve been very honest and just working with each other to improve as a team."