Making it up as they go along

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Posted by on December 31, 2008 at 08:36:42:

Monkey Business is headed by Q106's Jason Stephens.

Just for laughs: Making it up as they go along, Madison's improv performers savor the satisfaction of teamwork


There's a secret code for creating hilarity: "Yes, and."

Those two words are the building blocks of comedy improv -- an audience-driven performance art with a healthy presence in Madison.

Yes = Affirm what your fellow players are making up on stage.

And = Jump right in and contribute to the fun.

Shorthand for "improvisational," improv pieces are made up on the spot, testing the wit, timing, and inventive spirit of the performers who dare to give them a try. Think Second City. Think "Whose Line is it Anyway?"

Think about doing it for the love of laughs, and not for a paycheck, because there isn't one. That's what day jobs are for.

Of the members who generate yuks with Atlas Improv Company, which performs two shows on Saturday nights at the Electric Earth cafe, "None of them are really actors," says artistic director Neil Pohl. "We've got a cartographer in the group. We've got a manager for Panera Bread. We've got a woman who's starting a bilingual school.

"We're less a troupe than a group of friends. We know each other, and the audience basically pays to watch us have fun."

Which they do.

Part theater, part goofy entertainment, part unpredictable machine of moving parts, improv is a learned skill based on collaborative "games" that require a small group of performers to work fast on their feet.

But to be funny, they also have to surrender themselves to "the present moment," says Brad Knight, artistic director of Monkey Business Institute, a seasoned improv group that performs every Friday night at the Coliseum Bar.

"It's a common misconception that improvisers' brains are working a hundred miles a minute," says Knight. "Good improvisers -- their minds are empty, and they're just ready to accept what comes at them. So more than being quick and witty, it's more important that you are just ready to accept what the other improvisers are providing you at the moment."

Jodi Cohen, artistic director of Spin Cycle Improv troupe, agrees. "It's very painful to watch people trying to be funny," says Cohen, who's taught and studied improv for 23 years. "When you're trying to force it, you're trying to make the scene about you -- and improv is an ensemble sport."

Keeping it clean

Both Atlas Improv and Monkey Business Institute have their roots in ComedySportz Milwaukee, which ran an improv company in Madison through the 1990s until the locals defected.

"We had creative differences," says Pohl, a veteran of WYOU's "Free Love Forum" who joined ComedySportz in 2000, then left to found Atlas in 2004. "We wanted to do some other stuff. The philosophy hasn't changed too much. We just get to do more."

Knight also got his improv start with ComedySportz Madison and "I personally think it's the best kind of training I could have gotten," he says.

Atlas and Monkey Business share another ComedySportz legacy: Family-friendly shows. So the players keep it clean in games like "Forwards/Reverse," where they make up a scene, rolling it backwards or forwards on command, as if they were on a piece of instant replay tape. Or the lightning-fast "Guess What," where one player has to guess an oddball string of words as they're pantomimed -- using only gibberish -- by fellow improvisers.

"We can't impress ourselves unless we take a risk," explains Pohl, whose 12-member group advertises that "sometimes (their improv) works. Sometimes it sucks."

"If we take a risk, we may fail," he says. But "We don't want to tell the same joke every week."

Not a bad skill

Improv has a collegiate presence in Madison, too. The Wacktastics are an on-again, off-again student group at Edgewood College. At UW-Madison, The Understudies and The Titanic Players-The Founders, an outgrowth of a group based at Northwestern University, perform regularly.

"I'm estimating, give us one or two more years, and we'll probably be the talk of the town," says the Titanic Players' Mike Abdelsayed, who travels from the Chicago area to Madison to coach the three teams of nine students using improv methods from the comedy performance collective One Group Mind.

Jeanne Leep, chair of the theater department at Edgewood College, coaches the Wacktastics and this spring published a new book, "Theatrical Improvisation."

"The principles of improv, if you learn how to do it well, you can apply to just about any life situation," says Leep, who uses improv techniques in her classes. "I think when the economy turns a little crazy, being able to improvise your way through things in life is not such a bad skill, frankly."

Atlas, Monkey Business and Cohen (whose Spin Cycle is on hiatus until March) also do private shows and corporate team building workshops, using improv to foster creative thinking. Cohen's improv days go back to 1983, when she first saw Madison's legendary Ark Improv group perform.

"Two dollars to get in," she recalls. "I just remember sitting in this huge horseshoe booth with all these people, in this rowdy bar, and these people were up there doing improv. I just thought, this is my tribe, these are my people, they're speaking my language."

Alumni of those early days include actress Joan Cusack, comedian Chris Farley, and Emmy winners Jeff Kahn (writer for "The Ben Stiller Show") and Brian Stack ("Late Night with Conan O'Brien.")

"Quite an exceptional group of people," Cohen says. "And of course they made it look really easy because they were really good."


What: Monkey Business Institute

When: 8 p.m. Fridays

Where: Coliseum Bar, 232 E. Olin Ave.

Admission: $8

Web site:

What: Atlas Improv Company

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays

Where: Electric Earth Cafe, 546 W. Washington Ave.

Admission: $6

Web site:

(Wisconsin State Journal)

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