Greenville’s 85-member strong Alchemy Theater is sending members of one of its best, most experienced improv teams, the Local Legends, down to the Comedy Fest to take part in a multi-team “marathon” improv performance, but according to team member Larry Simonson, the biggest challenge his team will face won’t be onstage. It’ll be deciding exactly how many other performances they can watch as fans.
“We’re wondering how much improv we can take in over the course of the festival,” he says. “We usually pick a couple of special performances to go to and soak it all in and by the end of the weekend, we’ve kind of had our fill.”
The balance is because Simonson says that too much improv can fry a performer’s brain.
“I coach a couple of teams up here in Greenville, and I tell them to avoid burnout by doing too much improv. I tell them to make sure they still enjoy watching it.”
Being part of an improv group is an interesting because the performers often run into some misconceptions about what it is that they do. There’s a precision involved in improvisation that Simonson says people outside the circle don’t recognize.
“Anytime I tell people that I’m about to go to practice, they look at me like they don’t understand why I’m practicing an improvised performance. But a lot of what we do in practice revolves around understanding what makes a good show, what audiences appreciate, and homing in on the skills of playing with each other and keeping on your toes. You’re playing pretend with people, and some of it’s about understanding how your scene partners are going to react when you make certain choices, and how to pick up on what they’re giving you during a scene to help you find the funniest thing.”
There’s another misconception that improv performers are comedians, an idea Simonson is quick to dispel.
“Improvisers generally don’t refer to themselves as comedians,” he says. “There’s a difference. The vocabularies are different. With improv you’re working collaboratively; in the medium of you’re by yourself, workshopping a set of jokes over time. We’re coming up with it on the fly with other people onstage.”
Many of the acts performing at the festival this year, like OSFUG and Working Title, rely on a lightning-fast pace as part of their style. But Simonson says that Alchemy’s approach is a little different.
“Really, anything with improv does have a fast pace to it because you’re having to come up with everything on the fly,” he says. “What we do may be a little slower paces than a short form show, like Whose Line Is It Anyway? We have a bit slower pace to it because we kind of everything together.” —Vincent Harris