Improv shows bring howls of laughter in Boston and inspire students

Jody Feinberg

Sporting a red Bride-to-Be sash and flanked by 15 female friends and relatives, Samantha Tocci was primed for a good laugh when she took a front-row seat for the comedy improvisation show at Improv Asylum in Boston. And laugh she did, throughout almost the whole show, even when the cast of six brought her onstage and took her through a round of speed dating.

“It’s not too late to make a run for it,” said Michael Anastasia, referring to both her upcoming marriage and her role onstage.

Tocci, 23, not only stuck with it, but she spun out her own improv, for a while fooling the cast about her marriage partner and her work relationships, until Anastasia burst onstage with a jovial “You’re so clearly lying to us!”

Afterward, Tocci was delighted.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better for a bachelorette party,” said Tocci, a Millis kindergarten assistant. “They made it easy and fun for me when I was onstage, and they made everything funny.”

Watching the quick wit and dramatic flair of these performers, you’re likely to think either “I could never do that,” or “That looks like so much fun, I want to do that.”

That’s what Ben Carleton of Duxbury thought after he saw his first improv show in November.

“We just loved it,” said Carleton, 23, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a finance intern. “The atmosphere was great - to be able to be in that type of setting and laugh and shout out things that became part of the show.”

Carleton was on his way to learning improvisation, in a beginner class taught at Ellison Center for the Arts in Duxbury by Improv Asylum co-founder and executive producer Norm Laviolette.

At the first class earlier this month, Laviolette set the six students at ease.

“Don’t worry about being funny,” said Laviolette, who recently moved to Duxbury. “My guess is that you will laugh a lot, but we’re not looking for jokes.”

From watching the television show “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” many people have seen improvisation. Still, they sometimes confuse it with stand-up comedy, which it’s not, Laviolette said. While comedy is a one-person scripted performance, improv is a team process where everything is made up.

“Each night, we all together create an original show that will never be done again,” he said.

At a recent Improv Asylum show, an audience member offered the word parallelogram, and the cast spun it into a skit that evolved in ways none of them could have predicted.

“Improv is taking someone’s idea and creating something new,” Laviolette said. “Alternatively, it’s giving out your idea and letting someone else do something with it.”

Through a series of games, Laviolette introduced the Duxbury students to the major skills they would work on over the next eight weeks - listening, making eye contact and saying yes to others’ ideas.

“I can see that these approaches are good not just for improvisation, but for work or in a marriage,” said travel marketer Fred Clifford of Duxbury after his first class. “I wasn’t sure what to expect before. I see now it’s going to be fun.”

By the end of the class, everyone was laughing as they played a “pattern game,” where they tried to do three simple things simultaneously - say the name of someone else, name a cereal and change places according to a response by someone else.

The exercise demonstrated the importance of listening and seeing, as well as how improv is a physical as well as verbal form of expression. This is abundantly clear at Improv Asylum shows, where the actors are constantly in motion and enter and exit from all sides of the 180-seat theater.

Through other exercises, Laviolette showed how a scenario goes nowhere when people respond to each other either by answering negatively, asking a question, or changing the subject.

“Especially in the beginning levels, you never say no to someone onstage and you don’t ask questions,” he said. “You don’t say, ‘Do you want to go to the store?’ You say and do the things you want. You’d say, ‘Let’s go to the store,” and your partner would say, ‘yes,’ and build on that.”

Even after just one class, the students were improvising. Laviolette offered “cruise ship” as a prompt. Carleton and Cameron Burnham, 23, stood up and faced each other.

“Let’s play shuffleboard,” Carleton said as a kick-off. As they bantered, the two went to the casino, lost all their money and scammed free drinks off the crew. The rest of the class applauded.

Carleton and Burnham, who works for an advertising agency, don’t plan to become professional performers, which is true for many students who take classes at the Boston theater.

“I always hear, ‘Oh, you guys must all be these crazy extroverts.’ But many people actually are introverts,” Laviolette said. “They’re taking the classes because they want to have fun or they want to learn skills that will help them be more comfortable giving presentations and speaking in groups.”

However, Anastasia and many others in the cast of Improv Asylum did start as students in the theater’s classes, which advance through six levels and culminate in a graduation show performed at the theater. To help students learn from the seasoned performers, Improv Asylum offers free admission to all shows for current students in Boston and Duxbury.

Laviolette believes everyone is an improviser on some level.

“That’s why the genre is so popular, because it’s something that everybody does,” he said. “When people talk, they don’t have a script in front of them. They play off each other and make connections.”

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