Black Box Improve Theater

Mark DeBruin (left) looks baffled as I experience an issue with my pants during a sketch. On the wall, John Dysert (far left), Sara Jordan, Karen Chick and Ryan William watch everything unfold.

Muscle to muscle, toe to toe
The fear has gripped me but here I go.
— Alt-J, “Breezeblocks”

For six weeks, 13 individuals and I embarked on a journey learning the introductory stages of improv comedy, led by regular weekend performer Andrea Fantacone.

Each week was just another step closer to the night where my classmates and I would perform in front of a live audience for the first time. The night of the show came faster than most of us expected. We didn’t really stop to think about it, really.  We knew that between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. on Sundays, we’d be spending our time prepping ourselves for the day of the show.

LAST REHEARSAL (67 bpm)

 Close to an hour and a half before performing, we ran a quick dress rehearsal with Andrea. Performers normally don’t do run-throughs on the day of the show, but due to a power outage during our normal class time, we made an exception. As a group, we felt strong as we blazed through a handful of sketches.  It seemed that we were firing on all cylinders, finding games more quickly than previous sessions. Perhaps we were starting to figure it out?

After an hour of work on stage, Fantacone instructed us to make our way to the green room. I grabbed my bottle of water and enjoyed a cupcake brought in by one of my classmates, hoping the nerves and adrenaline would slow down from the wild and chaotic pace that I was experiencing. I took a deep breath and began scanning the room. Conversations fell in line with the light and funny; laughter from the small clusters of people was bright and breezy. I saw one or two of my classmates stretching out and getting loose at one end of the room.  I picked up on the music that had started blaring through the speakers out on the performance area. The expanding audience’s chatter seeped through the hollow walls of our room. I couldn’t help but remember the Friday performance I attended as a spectator – unaware of what I was going into, but excited to see what was about to happen. Fast forward six weeks and here I was on the other side – prepping to go onstage myself.

COUNTDOWN (87 bpm)

 After some words from theater owner Justin Howard, Fantacone got us set to hit the stage. We were instructed to divide into two groups. I was going to be in the first group, which made me happy. I figured if I was in the second group, I would have gotten into my head more than I already was. We stood near the door, listening to what was being said outside, and waiting to hear our cue to walk onto the David Michaels Stage. We take one finally look at each other before opening the door separating us and the audience. Our facial expressions were telling the story. We hear the nod, and off we go.\

SHOWTIME (95 bpm)

 I walk toward the stage and take a look at the overwhelming crowd circling me. I place my foot onto the wooden platform, step up and position myself onto the black wall. The onlookers finish clapping and my classmate Karen Chick asks for someone to shout a one-word suggestion. As I stood in the back, everything came rushing to me as if I was a surfer crashing into a wave. I started thinking about that abysmal first encounter of being on this exact platform. That infamous flamingo sketch. Seeing family, friends, strangers settled within their chairs shook me back to reality.
Black Box Improv Theater

Charmaine Kunzler (far left) and Karen Chick (far right) discuss how good John Dysert and yours truly (Tommy Johnson) look when portraying chickens in a sketch. In the back, Sara Jordan, Mark DeBruin and Ryan William look on.

I stood there listening to Chick move along during her monologue, making sure I heard anything and everything that might be good to act upon. When she finished, my classmate Charmaine Kunzler lightly touched my arm, signaling that she had an idea for a sketch and would like me to join her. Walking toward the opposite side of the stage as her, I felt a tingling sensation circulate through me. Everything that had been encompassing me as I stood there vanished without a single trace, or even a warning. I lost control of the moment.

Normally, you would be unsure of allowing yourself to be that transparent. But improv is about being in the moment. Listening to your partners onstage. Paying attention to what they are giving you. You have to go without thinking, which is exactly what took place that second.

I honestly don’t know what happened during the group portion I was in. Fortunately, I was able to obtain video of the show to see what transpired. The opening sketch I participated in featured Kunzier suspiciously trying to not reveal that she has been disposing the family animals in a variety of ways.  Another skit featured a classmate and myself as chickens that a mother and daughter may want to take home. In my monologue, I spoke candidly about the one-word suggestion I received: pants. One other pants-involved sketch involved me as someone who had a rather catastrophic accident – a lower back side injury due to padded slacks.

When our time was up, the second group took the stage and performed an exhilarating set. One of the monologues centered around one of the members speaking about his short stint working at a smoothie stand. He spoke about several experiences that featured him as an object of lust. Another sketch involved a male who is unable to do sign language struggle to shop at a local grocery store.

Black Box Improv Theater

Black Box Improv Theatre’s Level 1 Improv Class. From bottom left: Joseph Bretzfelder, Kara Jobe, Vanessa Roberts, Karen Chick, Charmaine Kunzler, Victor Hanrahan, Kevin Turner, Mark DeBruin, Matt DeNuzzo, Sara Jordan, Fran Hoover, Tommy Johnson, Ryan William, John Dysert.

LIGHTS OUT (85 bpm)

 As the light went dark on the final sketch of the evening, all of us went up on stage and took a bow. We glided back into the green room, flying high from what occurred. What took place during my section of the show was still a bit of a blur. We dissected some of the sketches, swapping comments and ideas that we thought would have worked. Overall, we landed on some great stuff. We were able to find the game in a majority of the sketches early and we ran with them. Some sketches tended to take longer to develop, but they ended up rolling along smoothly.

When I walked into the level one improv classes for the first time, I was unsure of what I was getting into. Each week, I walked across the black curtain excited and prepared to learn all about the art. Six weeks later, I was up on stage with some of the greatest people that I will ever met in my life. I don’t think we all intended to become so close with one another at the pace that we did. We pushed one another to be better.

The Black Box Improv Theater has an impressive array of talent that continues to grow. I wish I could describe how much Justin Howard means to all of us. By opening up the small theater, he has allowed a new world to open to those who dared to see what it was all about. I can honestly say that this has been one of the craziest and most terrifying experiences of my life.

I just hope that I don’t have to do another flamingo sketch. Ever.

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