Michael Cheers is on a roll. At this moment he is Flash Gordon answering insane questions at a press conference. In a few minutes he'll be pontificating about the lesser-known aspects of Sumerian culture. Later on, two fellow actors will improvise a scene based on 15 or so audience-offered topics. Somehow they manage to keep a "story" rolling despite being saddled with such incongruous suggestions as anger, spaghetti, death and go-carts.It should be noted that this performance by local improv group The Village Idiots is taking place in the back room of Tir na nOg, an Irish pub in downtown Raleigh. The actors struggle to be heard over a singer-guitarist in the front room playing stripped-down versions of not-quite-forgotten favorites by Edison Lighthouse and The Looking Glass. It's not the most theater-friendly environment, but in the world of Triangle improv, local performers and devotees take it where they can get it.
"The Triangle is not an easy place for theater companies and actors in general to find a locale that can format (improv theater) on a semi-regular basis," says Village Idiot Cheers (a man who could be mistaken for the hip, good-natured younger brother of Mike Meyers' "Dr. Evil" character). "People just don't have the opportunity to be exposed to it."
Although this area could never be confused with improv meccas like Chicago (home of the legendary Second City and ImprovOlympic companies) or Toronto (The Toronto Second City company was responsible for, among other things, the landmark SCTV television series), Raleigh's Village Idiots and Chapel Hill's Transactors are two local companies trying their best to expose audiences to quality improvisational theater.
Brian Stack, a writer on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and a former Second City player and ImprovOlympian, champions the talent coming from smaller regions. "Chicago is still probably the best-known place for improv," he says, "but you can still find great stuff in other places around the country now, too. You don't need to be in a big city."
Village Idiots director Falcon Arendell adds that, for the most part, what audiences are exposed to are the fast-paced improv games seen on the television program Whose Line Is It Anyway? "Generally what people want is the short-form, gimmicky stuff," says Arendell. "Anything that gives them the opportunity to yell out 'gynecologist,'" adds Cheers, a seminary dropout ("You have a great audience in the pulpit," says Cheers, "but they do not appreciate you going for the joke at funerals").
"We try to do stuff that makes you think," explains Arendell. "We're not above doing the cheap gag but we don't want that to be the only thing we do." "We like to take the system and stand it on its head--show the insanity by demonstrating it," adds Cheers. You probably won't be seeing these guys at ComedySportz, the national improv chain that some have dubbed the "Applebee's of improv."
Formed in 1996, the Idiots hone their skills in open workshops at Raleigh's Garris Building every Tuesday from 7 to 9 p.m. and every other Tuesday at Tir na nOg from 9 until 10:30 p.m. "We're looking at the best bits from rehearsal, and we use those in the shows," says Cheers. The group is planning a Christmas extravaganza ("An Idiot Child's Christmas in Wales," says Cheers) along with three or four different shows over the course of the next year. Arendell is also the general manager of Sans-Script, a six-week long-form improv show that is slated to premiere in January. "Each week builds on the previous one," says Arendell. "People can come in at any point and still get it."
A major stumbling block for local improv groups is the high turnover rate among members. The Idiots themselves have seen some 30 performers come through their ranks. "Ask any other improv group in the world," says Cheers, "and you'll find the same sad story of casts that come and go." Some members broke off a few years ago to form the "The Product," a Raleigh-based improv group, but for the most part, people just go on with their lives. "Many have gone successfully on to community college," quips Cheers.
But Cheers is optimistic about the current incarnation of the Idiots. "Now we've got me, the 'no-hope of getting married anytime soon guy,' the 'neurotic chick' and the 'divorced middle-aged guy,'" he says. "So I think we're going to stick with it." Arendell chimes in: "We're pretty pathetic single people who have no outside life, and that's what it takes."
I'm sorry," apologizes Transactors Artistic Director Greg Hohn during an interview at Chapel Hill's Wellspring Grocery. "I just picked up on this Bee Gees song." Hohn is referring to a barely audible late-period brothers Gibb tune wafting through the cavernous store. "I heard it on the radio yesterday for the first time in 20 years." With genuine perplexity he then asks, "Why this song?" Hohn, like most good improv performers, cannot help but notice and become engaged by the minutiae of daily life.
The guiding force behind the Chapel Hill-based improv group since 1996, Hohn discusses improv techniques in the same manner studied musicians speak of music theory. "I suppose if one were to approach improvisation in a very literal fashion, you could wind up very much like free jazz," says Hohn, adding, "but I can't stand Ornette Coleman ... so maybe we're cheating." Hohn has earned the right to wax philosophic about his craft, having studied under legendary Chicago improv pioneer Paul Sills and at Second City.
Sills' mother, Viola Spolin, and British-Canadian Keith Johnstone are generally regarded as the two major forces responsible for re-establishing improvisational theater in the 20th century. Improv's origins can be traced back to 16th-century Italy's commedia dell'arte, troops of roving performers who improvised dialogue within the framework of an established concept. Both Spolin and Johnstone used various improvisational games to reach their students and audiences. Johnstone took Spolin's "Theater Games" idea a little further with his "Theatresports," which featured improv teams competing for points in front of very vocal, often rambunctious audiences.
In the 1950s, Sills and Del Close were involved in co-founding the Compass Players, a Spolin-influenced Chicago improv group that led to the formation of the Second City company. John Belushi, Bill Murray, Martin Short, and John Candy would later study and perform at Second City. Close, who later formed the ImprovOlympics (boasting such alumni as Mike Meyers, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler), is best known as the person responsible for establishing "The Harold," a landmark long-form improv technique where themes are established, characters introduced and scenes play off one another.
Like the Village Idiots--for whom he's guest directed--Hohn prefers the freedom and opportunity for exploration afforded by long-form improvisation. "The difference between short-form and long-form," he explains, "is the difference between a song and a symphony. We're interested in developing narrative, which is a very difficult thing."
Formed in 1983, Transactors is probably the area's best-known improv group. The company tours consistently, performing everywhere from elementary schools, to corporate functions, to local theaters, to major-league international comedy festivals. Several of its members make their living acting in movies, commercials and stage productions.
What makes Transactors unique is that the nine-member group (featuring several of Hohn's former students) is essentially divided evenly between males and females. "When you look around," says Hohn, "you'll notice that improv is primarily a young white male thing. And that's great but you're limited in what you're doing."
"To me, the most interesting things are love, sex and romance," continues Hohn. "We had this joke when we were an all-male group: You'd come off stage and say to each other, 'Were you a woman or were you gay?'" Hohn adds, laughing. "Women have a much different way of approaching things improvisation-wise and I think that's one of the reasons we've gotten better in terms of emotionality."
At a recent performance at the Carrboro ArtsCenter, Transactors performed a long-form show about two dysfunctional families on vacation. The audience was an unofficial member of the company, furnishing the actors with characters--mother, father, son, pregnant daughter and hitchhiker--as well as travel destinations. The performers, who have no idea what role they will be playing when they step out in front of the audience, have got to be on it.
"It seems that what we're doing is entirely haphazard," says Transactor Zach Hanner, a local actor-writer who made his big screen debut in Forrest Gump. "But in reality, there's a lot of rules and structure to improv, and especially what we do. There's a form to follow, and if you stick to those rules when you're in trouble it tends to help you get out of trouble."
The most impressive thing about watching the Transactors is that nobody ever seems to get into trouble. "I've had people for years say, 'You guys make it look too easy'," says Hohn. A writer for The News and Observer even refused to believe that the group was improvising and stated as much in his review (an offense which garnered the critic an earful from Hohn). "Later on," says Hohn, "I thought, 'Man, we should have sued your ass.'"
Two major Transactors events are in the works for this fall. The group will be doing shows that incorporate short and long-form improv at Durham's Manbites Dog Theater from Sept. 19 through 22 and from Sept. 26 through 29. The company is also planning an Oct. 28 resurrection of its very popular show, The Musical.
"The audience picks the style, objective and title," says Hohn of The Musical. "What we want to do is present a musical that seems like it's from the '40s or '50s, but we don't know what the songs are going to be or what's going to happen."
With all the Transactors productions and touring, does Hohn ever think of taking his company to Chicago, New York or Los Angeles and trying to establish it elsewhere?
"I was out in L.A. a few years ago and one of the reasons I came back was that I have a chance here to do all these various things (teaching, writing, performing) to make a living as an artist and have artistic freedom," says Hohn. "Whereas there, everybody seems to be working some scam. I don't want to sell my idea to NBC, because NBC will immediately water it down and whore it up. I wouldn't mind having that money," he says, laughing. "But ultimately the most important thing is to be able to do want you want to do."
A Minneapolis native who's lived in North Carolina for the last 22 years, Hohn also points to his love for his adopted home. "The South has a long tradition of being both repressed and also being open to eccentricity--there's always a place for the town eccentric.
"We've talked about moving elsewhere," he adds. "But why? We tour and we have our home base. We've got two file cabinets and a computer. We can survive anything. We are the cockroach of the theater world."