Amherst Magazine

Mere Entertainment

imageMatt Johnson '10E (with purple glove) and
Adam Barton '11 (with scarf) on stage.

By Sarah Cassel '03

The scene begins with a red travel bag. A lone character strides across the stage, toting the bag, and ponders his existence. “I guess the truth is my mother didn’t mean to get pregnant with me on that October night,” he muses. “She thought her birth control was working. Well, I guess that’s what makes me the accidental tourist.”

The scene ends here, its painful pun disappearing, for the moment, into the ether. Later, a new scene begins with the same player at center stage, accompanied by the same red bag. “You know, I guess I’ve always loved plants and tulips and all that, but I never thought I’d make a living out of it. I guess that’s why they call me the accidental florist.”

The audience groans. Soon, the entire cast is on stage with arms extended, imitating trees like schoolchildren in an Arbor Day play. The tallest performer, at 6-foot-8, now sports the red travel bag over his outstretched arm. The audience cries out, surrendering to the joke: “Accidental forest!”

A single spotlight comes up on center stage. The red travel bag sits alone and motionless, inanimate in a halo of illumination. The audience, recognizing the harbinger of bad wordplay, strikes up a chorus of boos. In this moment, the jeers are as great an accolade as applause could ever be: they mean the audience is playing along.

The original members of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv performed the travel-bag scenes in 1989 at one of the group’s first big shows, held in the Frontroom in Keefe Campus Center. Today, the same space, now called the Friedmann Room, regularly abandons the quotidian trappings of reality as we know it and enters another dimension. It is a world in which a political leader addresses an eager audience, but only in sentences three words long. A doctor consults with a patient, but every time the patient says the word how, the doctor has to leave or enter the room. A sales clerk at Victoria’s Secret helps a customer—while the floor manager crouches at stage right with his head submerged in a bucket of water. Armed only with a list of games to play and, occasionally, a prepared opening skit, Gad’s spins together a weekly one-hour performance every Monday at 10 p.m., based entirely on audience suggestions and a will to entertain.

Gad’s, which just turned 20, is Amherst’s small contribution to a thriving culture of improvisational theater in the United States. Comedian Drew Carey’s improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? is familiar to many channel surfers, as is the original British version of the same program. But beyond TV, theater companies large and small—the most important include the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, The Second City in Chicago and The Groundlings in Los Angeles—have won followings for their live improv. Some of the best-known U.S. comedians, from John Belushi to Stephen Colbert, got their start in improv theater.

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Early Gad's members
The idea to bring improv to Amherst came from Mark Van Wye ’90, a child actor who grew up in Miami Beach. Van Wye had worked since age 3 under the tutelage of Jay W. Jensen (whose students included Brett Ratner, Andy Garcia and Mickey Rourke). Van Wye won roles in theatrical productions of classic fairy tales, was a child “news correspondent” in the CBS documentary Children of the South Pacific and was an understudy in Pippin when the Broadway cast came to Miami. At Amherst, he took a course in the spring of 1988 titled “Comedy.” Offered by the English and theater and dance departments, the class delved into the basics of what makes people laugh. One part of the course was about improvisational theater. In the class, Van Wye met and performed with Daniel Banyas ’90 and Erin Ash ’91. While in high school in Marshalltown, Iowa, Banyas had taken part in an improv workshop and performance led by a former member of The Second City, an improv-comedy giant whose alumni roster includes Bill Murray and Tina Fey.

At the end of that semester, Van Wye headed to Carlisle, Pa., to co-teach a summer course in improv at the Johns Hopkins-run Center for Talented Youth, where he learned traditional short-form improv games. One is “Movie Reviewer”: two critics describe scenes from a film whose title is invented by the audience, while other performers enact the movie clips that the critics describe. (The game, at some point renamed “Mat the Oovies,” remains a Gad’s favorite.) Another traditional improv game is “One Word On, One Word Off”: The audience assigns each player a word. The performers attempt a scene, but every time their word is said, they must exit the stage (if they are on) or come on stage (if they are off), in each case justifying their presence or absence.

Back at Amherst, Van Wye, inspired by the games and remembering his collaboration with Banyas and Ash, proposed they launch an improv group on campus. Banyas accepted immediately. Ash didn’t have the time to spare but agreed to provide some input. Gad’s was granted a charter as a student organization and a starting budget of $206.96 to cover props, a lighting technician, publicity in the form of table tents and posters and refreshments for the audience. To find players, Van Wye and Banyas posted signs and held auditions. With a starting roster of four men and four women, an improv group was born.

The next task was to find a proper name. Banyas still has the original brainstorming list of baby names. The three semi-finalists: One Blini, Two Blini; (Silica Gel) Do Not Eat; and the initial winner, Improvisational Theater Mellencamp. (Banyas also considered naming the group Free Beer, so that posters could offer “Free Beer in the Frontroom.”)

The circumstance surrounding the final baptism of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, however, is a highly guarded secret in the annals of Gad’s history. Who is the real Mr. Gad? To those who’ve never been in the group, his identity remains a mystery.

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Performers Andy Tew '07 and Bessie Young '11

In the early years, “bring things” was something of a group slogan: the performers would regularly incorporate props provided by the audience—a feather boa, a paperweight, a winter hat. The group would sometimes play the game “Detective,” in which the audience, when prompted, would toss their props up on stage. One of the players would lay dead among the debris; another would conduct an investigation as to the circumstances of his colleague’s untimely end. Other times, the group would play “Lifeboat”: the captain of a now-sunken ship would produce the objects from an open suitcase, and the survivors on the lifeboat would justify why each item was an absolute necessity.

The group would also pause scenes in progress, inviting the audience to change the plot. That old married couple having dinner? At the audience’s whim, they become former Cirque du Soleil members, kicked out of the ensemble for taking unnecessary risks. Audience members would even go on stage to confess their most embarrassing moments, only to have players re-enact the humiliating tales in various genres: a disastrous first date might be depicted as a Shakespearean tragedy, a Broadway musical and a pantomime.

“I had been acting since I was little,” Van Wye says, “and to me it was always about delivering the lines the right way and having your makeup just so and your body just so, and the blocking, and everything had to be perfect to make an audience want to pay to see a play or come back or to laugh or to cry. And all of a sudden, I realized that if you’re absolutely spontaneous, and you really genuinely say the first thing on your mind, an audience is there with you in the moment because they were there in its creation, and they’re in on it, and it becomes this really intimate thing.”
But the idea that Gad’s might have a true purpose or mission inspires mostly chuckles among its alumni. “I have no idea what Gad’s mission was or ever was,” says Amy Speace ’90. “I was pulled in on a dare.”

The troupe’s blithe attitude was not met with unanimous enthusiasm. At first, some theater professors worried that Gad’s might draw actors away from the college’s staged productions. Van Wye also started a second theater group with fellow Gad’s member David Sanger ’92. Called The Work, it performed scripted plays, often student-written, presented as alternatives to theater and dance department productions. Though The Work folded after about two years, it strained the relationship between the theater department and some initial Gad’s members. In a 1989 memo, Professor Michael Birtwistle (now the Stanley King ’03 Professor of Dramatic Arts, Emeritus) expressed dismay that a Gad’s performance would conflict with a major theater department production. While describing Gad’s as a group he would like to see prosper, Birtwistle wrote, “We should not be displaced by mere entertainment, however entertaining or well performed.” Gad’s gleefully incorporated the “mere entertainment” quote into subsequent publicity.

Over time, Gad’s found peaceful coexistence with the theater department. “A rolling ensemble with new members each year is really difficult to maintain, but Gad’s just keeps on coming,” says Peter Lobdell, senior resident artist in the theater and dance department. “More power to them.”  Professor Wendy Woodson, who chairs theater and dance, remembers some of the earlier Gad’s performances. “I’ve always enjoyed the lively antics and daring imaginations,” she says. “The true practice of improvisation—spontaneous composition—is a rigorous one.” But, perhaps, the early creative tension speaks to a larger truth about the ambiguous artistic space that improv comedy occupies.

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Adam Alfandary '10
Improvisational theater must be entertaining and must engage the audience actively and interactively. Without the audience, improv not only has no reason for being, it simply does not exist. Even so, improvisation is an art, complete with its own set of nuances. Characters are developed by means of their appearance, actions, body language and manner of speaking. Performers must create a vivid environment from nothing but empty stage, and they must maintain an ongoing and consistent awareness of that environment until the audience calls for a different location and the slate is wiped clean. The world they create has its own internal logic, no matter how absurd or irrational.

When I was in the group, my biggest challenge was to trust in my ability to step on stage without any preconceived idea of where I wanted a scene to go. It was tempting to wait in the wings and plan a potential scene in my head or invent funny lines to deliver. During my first semester with the group, I often hesitated before entering a scene, worrying that I had nothing funny to do or say. Then, during a rehearsal my sophomore year, a scene with Michael Rhoton ’01 broke down into the two of us tossing some imaginary object back and forth, our characters awestruck and stupefied by its dimensions and texture. There was nothing particularly funny about passing this invisible object between us. And yet, taking cues from each other, we made the object real, vivid and significant in that moment, and our fellow actors belly-laughed. Improv demands an ability to constantly free-fall into the present, living in your reality as you create it.

Once it had taken root as an Amherst institution, Gad’s continued to evolve, guided through the years by the creative leanings of its members. One notable shift took place under the directorship of Josh Koppel ’97. At age 16, in a chance encounter in a Chicago bookstore, Koppel met Del Close, one of the most influential figures in the history of modern improvisational theater. (“I loved you in The Blob!” Koppel remembers telling him.) The improv guru invited Koppel to take his class at ImprovOlympic, a theater Close had co-founded after decades with The Second City. A couple of years later, Koppel arrived at Amherst as something of a seasoned improver. In fact, in 1993 The Amherst Student billed him as the man who would bring comedy to Amherst. He had a lot to live up to.

Close’s philosophy is something of a departure from improv greats such as Keith Johnstone, the inspiration behind Whose Line Is It Anyway? Johnstone is a master of short-form games like those Van Wye learned at the John’s Hopkins summer program. Short-form scenes last only a few minutes and tend to revolve around a particular game or gimmick, such as “Time Acceleration,” in which the same scene is done in one minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds and finally one second. Close, in contrast, highly favors long-form improv, in which the audience suggests material—often a single word is enough—that the performers use to construct a series of scenes that intertwine in a sort of stream-of-consciousness riff. The book Truth in Comedy, coauthored by Close, outlines this approach, including a basic long-form structure that Close calls the Harold.

The Harold typically begins with a free-association opening scene, in which the entire troupe plays off an audience-selected word or phrase. The opening is followed by a series of short, unrelated scenes, with two or three players each, that pick up on separate threads from the free association. These short scenes are interspersed with games that bring the whole troupe back together to continue to riff on the free association. Eventually, games and scenes bleed into each other. Any single word—marshmallow, jaundice, installment—can yield 20 minutes of free-form creation.

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The heads-in-buckets bit
Perhaps due to Close’s influence, Koppel preferred long form, even though it can be harder to pull off: Compared to short-form improv, it has fewer built-in opportunities for audience participation. It also relies less on the types of gimmicks—a person with his head submerged in a bucket of water, for example—that inspire easy laughs. When Koppel arrived at Amherst, Gad’s had been performing only periodically. “I felt like it was a brand with an image problem,” he says. “I really felt that the only way to take the group to the next level would be to get them to do the Harold.” He took over as the group’s first official director and resolved to offer weekly shows.

Deanna Fleysher ’96, who was a member at the time, remembers the Koppel period as one of “radical transformation,” in which the group became more engaged in developing narrative and theme. Fleysher is among a small group of Gad’s alumni who’ve done professional improv. After Amherst, she joined the Upright Citizens Brigade and the People’s Improv Theater, both in New York City, and helped create the performance group Clown Noir.

Koppel never acted in Gad’s, and after only a year and a half, he left as director to launch the online magazine Citizen Poke. He went on to work as a television producer and is now creating and promoting new applications for iPhone. He says it was through Gad’s that he learned to be a producer.

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Fans of the show
The Harold has waxed and waned in influence, and today, it’s no longer part of the Gad’s show. But Koppel’s other big change—to have the students perform weekly—proved lasting. I remember a Monday night when several performers had to back out of the show because it conflicted with the dress rehearsal of an upcoming play, leaving only four of us to carry the hour. No matter what, the show always goes on. Many fans never miss a performance.

In the late 1990s, larger-than-life personalities—in particular, Jeremy Sosenko ’99, Rob O’Hare ’01 and Jenna Lamia ’98—drew big crowds to the weekly performances. It was an era of “Beatles-level glory,” says Leslie Manace ’00, a member at the time. Lamia, who has gone on to professional acting and screenwriting, had a knack for playing adorable little girls who said very unadorable things: satanic kids were her go-to archetype. Other members had signature flourishes: Elliot Greenebaum ’99 was a nonsequitor-roaring zombie. Sosenko had a way of opening an invisible can of Coke at just the right moment to leave the room in hysterics. An earlier member, Richard Horsman ’96, liked to quote 18th-century French poetry. Somehow, he made it funny.

At Amherst, despite the fact that expectations are high, ambitions are fierce and the transition into adulthood is often tumultuous—or, maybe, because of those things—engaging in the childish is a thriving pastime. Perhaps that is why so many Gad’s shows dive into the scatological while also touching the heights of the highbrow. Improv demands a willingness to blurt out whatever comes to mind; the delight comes not only in the laughter but also in the utter lack of social repercussions. “All those times in the third grade that squelched you, you can finally open up,” Manace says.

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Julia Brownell '04, midair in Johnson Chapel

When I was a member, Gad’s had a strong hold on physical comedy. Ben Hopkins ’03 was a competitive diver, wont to perform death-defying flips on stage. Mario Rojas ’02 did an impressive bear imitation. Julia Brownell ’04 was never afraid to take a flying leap. But today, Gad’s has taken a turn away from physicality towards wit and meta-humor. The result is “more cerebral,” says Dan Cluchey ’08, who remains a member even though he graduated last year.

Recent troupes have found the most success in navigating the gimmicks of short-form games, getting deeper into the tricks that make them funny. In “Chairless Conscience,” for example, two characters have disembodied minds that stand behind and think aloud for them. There is great potential here to contrast thoughts with actions, to reinterpret seemingly unambiguous gestures and to introduce subtext that the characters are forced to address.

From across the country, Van Wye seems pleased (and perhaps amused) with the staying power of Gad’s. He now lives in Los Angeles and offers workshops in theater and improvisation across the country to groups ranging from gifted children to special-needs adults. He has taught improvisational techniques to children of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation as a means to help them preserve and share the history of their tribe. He has also been a combat instructor for the Brazilian Special Forces, a hip-hop producer, a writer, a math tutor and a nude model. (I couldn’t help but ask if he took audience suggestions for his career choices.)

Even when pressed, Van Wye resists giving advice to the current Gad’s troupe. “Put me in the role of an audience member,” he says, “who shouted out, ‘Improv group at Amherst!’ and then a bunch of people, stretching over a 20-year period, went ahead and took that suggestion, and are still performing that same sketch and playing that same game.”

View a gallery of images from the early days of Mr. Gad's.

Watch clips from the Mr. Gad's House of Improv 2008 Murder Mystery on YouTube.

Sarah Cassel, a Gad’s member from 2000 to 2003, is a yoga instructor living in Oakland, Calif., where she is fulfilling premedical requirements at Mills College.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and David McGaughey '04 and courtesy of Daniel Banyas '90.