Comedy on the spot
NORTH ADAMS -- There are three basic rules of improv, according to Frank La Frazia of North Adams, director of the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe. One: Make your partner look good. Two: Say "yes, and," which means you take what your partner offers and go a step further. And three: "Say the first thing that comes to your head, or ‘dare to be ordinary.' Don't try to be clever."
The comedy group -- also known as RBIT -- which will appear at 8 p.m. Jan. 30 at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, has been a part of local life since 2001. RBIT adds to the longstanding theater scene in the Berkshires by offering live, unscripted entertainment in the tradition of the television show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
Like the TV show, each RBIT performance consists of improv games in which the actors are thrown into scenes based on input from the audience.
"Pretty much every single game we play is based off of audience suggestions," said troupe member Seth Brown of North Adams. "We'll ask the audience to shout out a location, a problem, an occupation, a phobia or some other important seed for the scene, and then that suggestion drives the whole game. Sometimes we even have a game or two where we invite audience members onstage. The audience participation is a huge part of our show."
So is character development. Even in a 30-second skit, it's all about people, situations and relationships, just as in a traditional play.
"We are character- and scene-driven, not one-liner- or ‘shtick'-driven," La Frazia said. "If you watch characters you relate to or care about get put into impossible situations or turn their roles on their heads, it's funny. We never put people down or make fun of people. We pull the audience in and get them to laugh at the scenario."
The scenarios themselves vary wildly according to the given game. The actors may be required to speak only in rap, or they may have to start every sentence with the next letter of the alphabet; they may have to act as if they're appearing in certain genres of film such as noir or science fiction or action-adventure. Some popular games have names like "musical nightmare" or "rap psychiatrist," La Frazia said.
It's not completely unlike scripted theater. In fact, La Frazia noted, improv has a lot of the same fundamentals as a standard theater performance: scene, character, motivation and so on. He said he finds improv more relaxing to perform.
"If something goes ‘wrong,' you just fix it," he said. "In scripted theater, if you mess up a line or blocking, or something does not go well, technically it is more stressful to fix."
Most of the troupe said their work with improv was useful for their other theater work.
"Learning the skills of improv has helped me as an actress on so many levels," said member Barby Cardillo of Cheshire. "Especially, oddly enough, with dramatic roles."
Fellow member Alexia Trainor of North Adams agrees.
"Working on a script gives you a chance to delve into a character and the world of the character in a different way. You have time to analyze things and come up with back story, et cetera," she said. "With improv, it is all on the spot. Having done it for years, I have a handful of characters that I'm able to pull out, but overall it is all spur of the moment."
Most of the troupe's members are involved in both worlds, improv and traditional theater, and it's obvious these actors aren't in it for the money -- they're in it for the comedy.
"RBIT is mostly paid in laughs," Alexia's husband, Mike Trainor, said, "which I tried to cash out at the bank, but they laughed at me. Then I asked them to deposit those ones, too, and they called security."
RBIT is careful to point out that its brand of entertainment is not intended to compete with the other theater companies in the area.
"We complement what goes on here in Berkshires," said La Frazia. "We don't compete with the major theater companies; we offer something unique."
In this case, "unique" means not only "different from the others" but "different every time."
"What I love most about improv is that every show is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Brown. "If a theater show has a one-month run, you can go the first week, see a great show, tell your friend, and they'll see that same show next week.
"When you see a great improv show where your suggestion about flamingos is turned into an epic story involving 300 plastic turtles, a smoking flamingo and the Pope, you've seen comedy that existed only at that singular point in time, thanks to your input. That same scene will never be performed again."
The players ...
Most of RBIT's members are involved in both improvisational and traditional theater.
In addition to being the director of RBIT and the point person for the group's communications and gig-booking, Frank La Frazia works for Barrington Stage Company, runs the Playwright Mentoring Project for youth and works in professional film and television production throughout the Northeast.
When Wendy Walraven of Williamstown isn't RBIT-ing, she's the coordinator for afterschool programs at Drury High School as a part of 21st-Century Community Learning Center.
"I am fortunate enough to be in a position to create programming for teenagers," Walraven said. "This is a great opportunity for students and is only one of the many community connections we have in place."
Barbie Cardillo is a student at MCLA who also works as an actress and a teaching artist with the education department at Shakespeare & Company, in local schools and with the Shakespeare in the Courts program, as well as the Playwright Mentoring Project and the Berkshire Theatre Festival's winter education program.
"My favorite organization that I work with is CATA -- Community Access to the Arts -- where I teach workshops with developmentally disabled adults," she said. "I am also a full time student at MCLA and will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology/social work."
Alexia Trainor, a North Adams stay-at-home mother, volunteers at Main Street Stage and has been a visiting artist at BArT for drama and improv.
Her husband, Michael Trainor, is a member of RBIT and also a board member of Main Street Stage in North Adams; he does tech work for an Internet company during the day.
Seth Brown, a freelance writer, humor columnist and self-professed "rapper for hire," performs regularly at poetry slams and stand-up comedy open mics around the county.
RBIT does also supplement their shows with availability for corporate events, birthday parties, after-prom parties, retirement home appearances, street fairs and the like.
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