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For the wise guys and gals of the Washington Improv Theater, humor
is a matter of life or death.
A random person passing through the Unitarian Universalist Church on 16th Street NW on a Tuesday night would think some unholy ritual was taking place in the children’s Sunday-school classroom on the third floor. The 10 members of Washington Improv Theater, better known as WIT, are rehearsing for their weekly show.
They stand in a circle, passing freaky gestures and incomprehensible, guttural grunts and squawks back and forth, as if a game of telephone were being played by demon-possessed Neanderthals undergoing exorcism.
Mark Chalfant, WIT’s current “co-director,” calls it a “sound-and-motion-transfer circle.” But it’s make-it-up-as-they-go, like the sketches the troupe does during its Saturday night performances at the Metro Cafe. The group creates structures and goes over some basic rules, but what a show will in fact contain is anybody’s guess.
“These are 10 people who are going to take an audience someplace it’s never been,” Chalfant says with utmost seriousness. “And they can only get there if the 10 people are really connected and really listening and being there.”
With his gentle blue eyes and calm voice, Chalfant comes across as the Deepak Chopra of improv. To hear him tell it, improv saves lives.
“It transforms you completely. It’s like love and sanity and everything good about being human is contained in improv,” Chalfont
gushes, with an earnestness last seen on Leave It to Beaver.
“Oh my God,” groans Tyler Korba, one of the group’s original members.
“I’m serious,” Chalfant shoots back.
Chalfant’s ’60s-spiritual-enlightenment view fits well with the group’s structure. WIT, which started 15 years ago as a free monthly improv workshop run by Carole Douglis, today functions as a cooperative. Leadership rotates seasonally. The group makes decisions by consensus. None of the performers are paid, except for guest musicians, and all profits go toward publicity, training, or charity.
Korba, though not as Aquarian as Chalfant, performs with WIT because, he says, “It’s liberating. Someone decides to throw an object in the air and it stays there,” Korba says. “When you get to play without rules, it’s really good fun.”
“This will all be in the infomercial,” Chalfant adds.
Lisa Parson, a newcomer to the family, has the most down-to-earth view of the enterprise: “I figured I could come here and I wouldn’t have to study up or anything,” she says.
“What you’re about to see is something that has never been seen before and will never be seen again,” Korba intones. “Sometimes that’s beautiful, and sometimes that can be tragic.”
Some variation of these words opens every WIT performance. It’s about the only reliable thing you can count on at a WIT show. That, and audience participation.
Even during a storm, WIT manages to draw a full house. Members of the group start out by asking the audience for suggestions—topics, movie titles, character ideas—just enough to get people comfortable. But soon enough, about the same time the collective beer buzz kicks in, it’s time to choose an audience volunteer.
Parson likes to go with her gut when it comes to picking a volunteer. “You can tell who’s going to want to go onstage,” she says assuredly
At the Metro Cafe, Parson peers into the darkness, searching the averted eyes of the crowd. She points a finger at a blank-faced newcomer. An audible sigh of relief issues from the people sitting near the chosen one.
“My friend shoved my arm up,” says the participant, named Jennifer, a few weeks later. “I said I didn’t want to go up, but the audience gave a round of applause, so I went.”
The embarrassment must not be too bad, because Jennifer comes back to the show the next week with four friends in tow, including Judy Furlow, who in turn gets picked by Parson to come onstage. A quick interview reveals that Furlow, who works as a computer troubleshooter, secretly desires to be a cheerleader, graphic designer, or movie theater owner. She also wishes she were independently wealthy, and she doesn’t want to give any of the money to her family.
With that information in hand, the group sets about creating a series of loosely connected, stream-of-consciousness-style “formats,” or skits. In one, a proud dad reminisces with his millionaire cheerleader daughter about her humble beginnings—the times she used homemade, spray-painted mops for pompoms. Dad hopes to get a piece of the pie, but, of course, his daughter won’t think of surrendering her loot.
“I think it’s fantastic! It’s hilarious!” Furlow raves after the show. “I’m actually upset that I didn’t
come before. It’s better than sitting
at home watching TV! People might not think much of that, but I watch a lot of TV.”
The first half of a WIT show is pretty much designed for TV-audience attention spans. Watching the “Genre Rollercoaster” sketch is like channel-surfing in virtual reality; two actors act out a scene while another WIT member calls out different genres—sci-fi, horror, History Channel, Elvis movie—suggested by the audience. The “Oscar Moment” sketch, based on those maudlin film clips played during awards shows, allows the actors a chance to upstage each other without sanctions.
The laugh ratio during the “Family Dinner” sketch, a cross between This Is Your Life and The Gong Show, goes up with the number of members of the audience participant’s family. An audience member describes his or her most recent family gathering, and the performers act it out. The audience member sits on stage and rings a hotel bell (ding!) whenever an actor’s portrayal is accurate. If the actors miss the mark, the audience volunteer slaps a WIT member’s hand, prompting them to make the enhhh—wrong-answer—sound.
“Karen’s Christmas” begins with Mom (a pitch-perfect Anita Chupp) in the kitchen rolling out dough, humming happily, then yelling for Dad (Korba) at the top of her lungs (ding! ding! ding!). His macho, can’t-be-bothered entrance gets the buzzer, but he tries again. “Yes, honey” (ding!). When Karen’s brother enters the picture, Mom barely looks at him before she starts laying into him. “Did you even turn on the iron when you ironed that shirt?!” (ding!). Alcoholic Uncle Jimmy (Chalfant) shows up and wants a beer. When no one will get him one, he decides to head to the store himself, taking Karen (Yvonne Doerre) with him (ding!). End of scene.
With three years of live performance under its belt, WIT has a growing following. A newspaper audition announcement last year yielded 75 would-be improvisers. A good chunk of audience members come back after their first time. But of all the group’s regulars, nobody’s more regular than Anita Marie Murano.
“They are so funny. They amaze me,” says Murano, who has volunteered by working the door every week for the past year and a half.
“Being the doorbitch for as long as I have, I wouldn’t be here if they weren’t so funny,” she says, in between blowing soap bubbles and taking drags on a cigarette. “They were rip-snortin’ funny. Like I-have-to-go-to-the-bathroom-or-I’m-gonna-pee-on-myself funny.”
“It’s never about funny,” says Chalfant. “It’s not that funny is bad, but what’s most important is that we’re there and we’re really playing connected with each other in a truthful way—and that always seems to lead to the funny.
“If my partner is spitting out one-liners but we’re not connected, maybe that’s OK comedy, but it’s horrible improv,” Chalfant says.
“If you can just arrive at something true, oftentimes that’s more satisfying than something that’s funny,” Korba adds. “In a bar on a Saturday at 9:30, we held everyone’s attention for 40 minutes without distraction—that’s a success.
“That whole in-the-moment thing is what all the stuff is focused on,” says Korba.
“We have a perfect little world here that’s kind of uncommon,” Korba says. “And I’m sure it gets scoffed at….”
“But,” says Chalfant, “we want what we have.”CP
WIT’s next run of shows, “WIT in Stereo,” starts Saturday, July 29, and continues Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Aug. 26 at the Metro Cafe. For more information, call (202) 244-8630, or log on to www.dcwit.com.