Last year, the director of the Providence Improv Festival was slack-jawed at the public’s response to the debut event. Throngs milled outside Perishable Theatre, unable to get in.
"We had to turn away hundreds of people!" recalled Mauro Hantman, a Trinity Rep company member for six years. He also helped found Improv Jones in 1994, when Brown University’s IMPROVidence was the only improvisational comedy troupe in the state.
The festival came together when Improv Jones and Unexpected Company, another local troupe, decided that a little cross-fertilization between them was in order. Major cities from Miami to Seattle have annual improv festivals, and there was room for one more. Joined by the Speed of Thought Players, from Holbrook, Massachusetts, they put on a two-day mini-fest in January last year.
Though Hantman was surprised at the public’s enthusiasm over the first festival, he’s clear about the appeal of the comedic genre.
"It’s high-energy, it’s immediate, it’s participatory," he said. "We’re living in a time when television is being replaced by the Internet, which is an interactive thing, you know? I think that people like to be a part of what they’re being entertained by."
Even if the participation is simply to shout out, say, a profession, an object, and a location, so that a taxidermist can find a sacred egg beater atop Mt. Everest in a skit.
"There’s something really irreverent about improv," Hantman observed. "You’re looking at contemporary culture with open eyes — and a sense of humor, of course. It seems similar to the role that court jesters played. People who improvise have permission to deal with subject matter that you can’t really deal with in other venues."
The on-your-toes performance challenge is not for the meek and humble.
"I always say that improv is for all those people that were class clowns in junior high school, but now you get to do it legitimately in front of people, and sometimes they pay for it," he said. "And people laugh and clap instead of send you to the principal’s office."
By the nature of its creative process, improv performances tend to be on the bleeding edge of biting social satire.
"Because it’s based on free association, stuff from culture seeps right in there, sort of jumps out of your mouth before you even know it," he added.
Hantman, 36, was raised in Vermont and came to Providence in 1987 to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. He ended up with a BFA in printmaking but found himself doing "a lot of performance stuff." Going on to the Trinity Conservatory in 1996, he joined the company upon graduating three years later.
The actor was speaking upstairs at Perishable Theatre, where he and the Jones boys (member Casey Seymour Kim would show up later) were about to morph a situation from slavery in Egypt to Paris at the death of color to battle in the French Toast Wars with the speed of blurted Rorschach test responses.
"There’s a whole lot of crazy mixed-up stuff out there in the world, and people like to look at it through the lens of humor," Hantman said.
Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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