At Improv Anonymous, the University of New Hampshire’s (UNH) longest-running improv comedy troupe, you can do whatever you want and be whoever you want, whenever, said senior Rhea Neal.
“It’s like theater, but nobody gets to tell you the rules,” she said.
Improv Anonymous is a performing theater troupe where on-the-spot acting is performed by students with varying levels of experience in stage performance and comedy.
“Not all of us are super trained actors,” Neal said. “We’re just people that like having fun and seeing people laugh.”
Thursday nights, the troupe hosts improvised shows. For one hour, they perform spontaneous skits with ridiculous scenarios helped by suggestions from the audience.
“It’s so fun to be able to interact with them,” said senior Sophie Baker. “The entire scene is different depending on what the audience says.”
The spectators are extremely important; if their energy is high, it helps the actors progress through a show, Baker said.
Of course, the shows use some structure.
On Tuesdays, the troupe loosely rehearses skits. There’s always an idea of one rule or format to follow, but that doesn’t subvert the spontaneity.
“It’s so funny—we’ll do the same show, the same games 60 times,” Baker said. “And it’s so different every single time.”
During skits, the plot pivots directions frequently. The actors are often just as shocked as the audience.
“There have been moments where someone will say something that really is the climax of the scene, and it’s just the weirdest thing,” said junior Improv Anonymous member Emily Goldberg. “And you go with it because it’s just funny and random.”
For the actors, the stage is like a safe space to try things out.
“Sometimes I’ll have funny ideas like, ‘oh this would be a funny name; I wonder what that guy would be like,’” said Baker.
Baker likes to brainstorm characters outside of improv; sometimes they reappear in her subconscious on stage. Other times, she has fun coming up with a character on the spot.
“I pose my body in a certain way, and then a character just comes along with it,” said Baker.
Goldberg likes to build off jokes; she credits Neal for her affinity to name characters after objects.
“We just did a game and my character’s name was Lemon,” Goldberg explained. “Lemon’s quirky personality trait is that she prefers limes.”
The freedom to “create your own anything” is what makes Improv unique, said Neal.
“I like being a part of that experience,” said Neal, “like, ‘ha! You don’t know where this came from!’”
Just like any other art form, Improv is an imaginative outlet, Baker said.
“It’s just a really fun way to have creative and emotional release,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Improv is a way for Baker to clear her brain.
“I can’t be on stage thinking about all the assignments I have to do,” said Baker. “I’m in front of a bunch of people. I have to just be in the moment and say funny things.”
It’s therapeutic for the audience, too.
“I enjoy being able to just relax, laugh, and forget about my worries for an hour,” said sophomore Ian Miles, who just started going to Improv Anonymous shows this year.
Miles is pleasantly surprised at how easily the performers can make any situation funny.
But Baker explains that Improv is just like having a chat with someone.
“I think a lot of people put pressure on it like, you’re on stage so it has to be different than regular life,’” Baker added. “But I’m just pretending to be someone else and just having a conversation — that’s really all it is.”
Everyone has the potential to succeed in Improv because they improvise more than they might realize, Neal said.
“In everyday life, you often have to think on your feet,” she said. “Improv is just an extension of that.”
Back in the familiar setting of the MUB Entertainment Center (ETC), Goldberg feels at home.
Even though everyone wears masks, the acoustics help sound travel more clearly, and shows still feel fulfilling to Goldberg. She can track the audience’s eyes and posture to determine if they’re happy.
The change in environment is an improvement from last year — shows were performed under tents outside following COVID-19 safety guidelines, and sometimes that was challenging, said Goldberg.
“There were a couple shows where people wore masks and it was so hard to hear laughter,” said Goldberg. “You could never tell if the audience really enjoyed it.”
One show was caught in a rain shower while Goldberg took part in a game on stage. The rain drowned out the audience sounds; even if they were laughing, Goldberg couldn’t hear them.
“I definitely took it to heart,” said Goldberg, “I was like, ‘oh my God I just did so terribly.’”
As an audience member, Miles doesn’t worry when it feels like a scene isn’t playing out well.
“The show is so fast paced that within a few seconds, they’ll tell a joke that lands,” he said.
Neal uses these moments as learning experiences.
“We all have times where we feel like we ‘bomb,’ but it’s all a part of the process,” said Neal. In those moments she likes to ask herself, “Alright, what did work? What did they like? What did I like doing? What is something I can use again the future?”
Improv is not only about trusting yourself, but it’s also about learning how to trust other people, said Neal.
“Whatever’s going on, we’re going to figure this out together,” said Neal. “It should never feel like, this person’s messing up, they’ll figure it out. It’s always, what can I do to bring them up with me; how can we make this scene better together?”
For Goldberg, Improv Anonymous is family.
“Working four hours every week, you get close with people,” she said.
Through the dreariness of COVID-19, Improv was a beam of light for Goldberg. During the height of quarantine, she wasn’t sure whether she would return to UNH.
“The main reason I came back was because I loved this troupe so much,” said Goldberg
They’re a superorganism, magnetically drawn to one another, sharing the spotlight.