Crafting Comedy

Christy Carley, Staff Reporter

Senior Sam Gelband’s favorite memory from his time with Varsity Nordic is a scene in which he played a British man named Edgar. The man’s son, also named Edgar, and played by another Varsity Nordic member, had run away to the United States in search of a new life. In the scene, the two would chat on the phone, each of them repeatedly addressing the other at the beginning of their conversations:

“Edgar?” “Edgar?” “Edgar?”

And in one fateful moment, after four seconds of silence, they both said “Edgar” at the exact same time.

“It was just this unspoken agreement to hit that joke at the same time,” said Gelband. “It got a great response. It was a sign of such trust — of being so in sync with your scene partner. I’ve been chasing that feeling since then.”

In improv, synchronicity is important.

Varsity Nordic, the group of campus improvisers whose predecessors snagged their name from the defunded nordic ski team, generally meets three times a week at 10:00 p.m. While their practices aim to focus on a number of improvisational skills, establishing a group dynamic is a top priority. According to junior Reid Watson it’s necessary to ensure that all members of the team are “on the same wavelength.”

In a practice I attended last Tuesday, the group engaged in a number of activities designed to do just that. But first they had to warm up.

“Can we do the singing one?” Someone asks excitedly, and the others nod in agreement.  

Kimball auditorium fills with sound as members of the team chant “bad rap!” while one at a time they add an impromptu rap line to an evolving song. The game then turns to more singing, now with stomping and clapping included. Soon after, though, the tone shifts. The next activity is quieter, more focused–the intention is to clap at the exact same time as someone else standing in the circle. I watch as the group slowly comes together, making invisible connections to arrive on that wavelength Watson mentioned.

Forging connections

Members of Varsity Nordic emphasize that trust is a key element of improv. Junior Roxanne Stathos admitted that going to practice during her first month on Varsity Nordic was “terrifying,” but eventually she learned to trust herself as well as her teammates.

In improv, split-second decisions are almost always necessary, and hesitation can mean a lost opportunity. Gelband described feeling a “sense of immediacy” while on stage.

“There’s no time to second guess yourself,” he said.

Stathos believes that this kind of confidence “comes from practice,” but teamwork plays a role in confidence as well.

Regarding the importance of teamwork, Gelband referred to improv as “a really generous act.”

“Anything you do in an improvised scene should be intended as a gift for your other scene partners. Whenever you open your mouth you’re providing more for them to work off of,” he said.

The generosity is evident in their practice. I observe as they stand in a circle, one member of the group throwing a word into the center and others building off of it to think of related words. The speed starts to pick up when “sexy pirate” is mentioned and they riff on that for a while. One of the stated purposes of this activity is to “establish a group mind.”

Collaboration extends to off the stage as well. First-year Matt Schetina said one of his favorite parts about Varsity Nordic is getting to debrief as a group after shows.

“We like to talk after practices and shows about what was good and what was bad–what we liked and what we didn’t like. I love that because those are the moments where I feel the most like I’m collaborating with people … working on something cool and creating art,” he said.

Trusting the forms

As an art form, improv can be quite complex. Humor is not the only place where meaning can be found within the shows, and, often, some of the group’s best material comes not only from specific lines or ideas but also from the ways in which their stories are told: what the improvisers refer to as “forms.”

Gelband described forms as a “container for content.” The forms dictate the structure of the narrative, how ideas are generated and carried out by the performers. A la ronde, for example, is a long form style of improv cited as a favorite by many members of the group. It allows the performers to remain in the same character for a longer period of time and gives them the opportunity to develop relationships with one another.

When the group isn’t pulling a form from the pages of “The Upright Citizen Brigade’s Comedy Improvisation Manual,” written by the improv group that includes comedian Amy Poehler, they might be creating a new style of their own.

“When we’re creating a form I think it’s pretty methodical,” said Gelband. “It’s normally a variation on something that’s already established.”

Forms created by Varsity Nordic include titles such as “The Documentary” and “Porcupine.”

Watson believes the forms are an important part of creating an engaging show.

“There’s always a temptation to try to be funny or make jokes,” said Watson. “That’s not something I’m super good at. I can’t make up jokes but I can work with people to build a story. You can kind of rely on the form itself–it’ll be entertaining and you just have to trust that.”

Engaging with the crowd

Many forms of improv are characterized by a high level of audience participation, which many members of the group cite as one of their favorite parts of doing shows. Even I was asked, while attending their practice, to suggest a word with which to begin an activity. When I was too slow to respond, someone yelled “journalism” and the scene commenced.

Performing in front of a large audience presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Varsity Nordic. While the group hopes to please their audience, they know that not everyone will laugh at every joke. According to Gelband, this is all right.

“I don’t think they need to laugh at things that make them uncomfortable. I don’t think it’s wrong that they laugh at things that make other people uncomfortable,” he said. “I think and have always believed that humor is a place for important conversations, and I have heard that the first sign of a democracy failing is that all the comedians disappear.”

For Schetina, the improv community reaches beyond the performers. He said he feels lucky to have the support of audience members from  Whitman and Walla Walla.  

Varsity Nordic shows almost always draw a crowd. One Walla Walla resident who attended their recent 24 hour show on April 1 and 2, said this was his tenth year coming to watch Whitman improv–he first became interested while in middle school, and at their most recent show, asked if he might be allowed to come up onstage and participate.

“He actually turned out to be really good,” said Schetina.

As the youngest member of the team, Schetina looks forward to maintaining Varsity Nordic’s supportive culture and community focus for years to come.

“There’s definitely a culture of supporting each other and our endeavors that I want to continue,” he said.

When asked if he ever gets nervous, he said he sometimes still does, but his enjoyment usually overrides any apprehension.

“Once we’re all onstage, the energy–our energy and the audience’s energy–just wipes [the fear] away and it turns into focus,” said Schetina. “It’s a rush comparable to very little else.”