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Winging it
Providence Improv Fest is off the cuff

Funny fare

Rub your eyes and look again. In its second annual incarnation, the Providence Improv Festival has grown enormous, from three last year to 16 — count them, 16 — troupes, no waiting, performing June 10 through 12. The shows are cheap, 10 bucks; a three-ticket package is $25, though not professionally shrink-wrapped. (Maybe next year.) Performances are at Perishable Theatre (95 Empire Street) and the Rhode Island Theatre Ensemble (RITE) basement space around the corner at the First Universalist Church (250 Washington Street).

Two free midnight Open Improv Jams, drawing from various performers, will be held at the end of the evenings on June 10 and 11. For audience members who have graduated from heckling to shouting out skit contributions and want to take the next step, there will be free improvisation workshops.

The groups’ styles and techniques are diverse, from short-form games to long-form stories, from two-person teams to populous ensembles with back-up for the evening’s attrition. Most shows consist of two or three troupes.

Hosts are the local groups Improv Jones and Unexpected Company. Also from hereabouts is the Providence College troupe Rejects On the Rise. Other regional groups include Speed of Thought Players, who are Massachusetts-based but were Rhode Island regulars at the late Castle Cinema Café, and From the Gutter, from Fall River. From farther north are Improv Boston, a veteran company around since 1982, and Improv Asylum, who have appeared on HBO and in a Dewar’s scotch commercial. Spontaneous Generation is a high school troupe from Newton, Massachusetts, that stresses building characters.

Some of the usual nationally recognized improv suspects are here, such as New York’s NeoFuturists, performing "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," a whirlwind of 30 mini-plays in 60 minutes. The Revolution AllStars, from San Francisco, will spin a scene-based story from an audience-suggested premise.

Other groups that stand out, if only for their competitively surreal names, include:

I Eat Pandas, a duo and a musician, from Chicago, who make up musicals on the spot.

The Strange Box of Dr. Oddbody, an amalgam of H.P. Lovecraft, The Twilight Zone, and horror comic books, hosted by the Doctor and Tina, Princess of Pain.

Gun Show, which has devised a long form they call Memory Storm, in which stories based on their memories accumulate and snowball into elaborate fantasies.

The Stanley Project, five NYC actors inventing a documentary biography based on initial audience suggestions.

Waiting for Ennis Cotter, consisting of two women and a bartender, taking suggestions from us other bar patrons to reminisce about a 20-year wait for their blarney-spouting fiancé to show up.

Penguins Without Pants, a university-spawned company from Syracuse that tries hard to be as funny as its name.

Six free weekend workshops will be conducted by Improv Jones and Unexpected Company, ranging from improv basics for kids to collaborative scene-building for extrovert grown-ups. Not wanting to be left out, festival performers will be offering workshops for each other in their specialties.

To purchase tickets and get details about performers and workshops, go to www.providenceimprovfest.com

— B.R.

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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