Upright Citizens: improv comics hit the road

Silvija Ozols and Gavin Speiller of the Upright Citizens Brigade perform improv comedy in the Hess Rec Center last Thursday. Photo by Jesse Hoff/The Sun Star

By Nina Schwinghammer
Sun Star Contributor

Four members of the New York comedy improv group, Upright Citizens Brigade, entertained UAF students at the Hess Rec center last week. The student activities office brought the stand-up comics to Fairbanks to relieve some mid-term anxiety and inspire budding comedians.

Started in 1996 by Amy Poehler and three other comedians from Chicago, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater has clubs and academies in New York and Los Angeles. Members of the group have appeared on comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and The Daily Show. All of the actors at last week’s performance also teach improvisation and sketch comedy at UBCT’s New York training center.

Improvisation uses random themes to spontaneously create a flow of comedy. It can be done by a single, stand-up comic or by a troupe of players, each feeding off the energy of the others. Performances usually begin by interviewing audience members to get some inspiration and then taking off on a wild tangent when the moment presents itself. Members of the troupe say they enjoy improv because it’s new and exciting. “We discover as we go,” said Shannon O’Neill, one of the cast members.

According to the visiting comics, improv can be challenging. It requires intense concentration by the actor, who must perform at the same time he or she is trying to plan the next funny move. When a group is performing, each actor needs to be able to sense the flow of the comedy and know how to support each other. O’Neill calls the technique “group mind” and said that when it works well, the actors are taking cues from one another while working an idea to the next step. Sometimes an actor will sit out of the sketch and then “tap” in when he or she has an idea to promote the scene.

O’Neill said the only part of the show that’s planned is the opening interview. Everything else after that is new and unrehearsed. “We like to keep it fresh,” she said.

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