Improv workshop brings Comedy Weekend off-stage

Who doesn’t like to laugh? Those who went to the April 21 Improv Workshop in Mephistos lounge found a place where they could laugh loudly and create laughter in turn. As a part of Comedy Weekend at the college, the workshop was taught by Russ Armstrong from the Magnet Theatre Company. The Magnet Theater, founded in 2005, is an improvisational comedy theater in New York City that provides not only great comedy shows but also abundant improv training programs.

Russ Armstrong of New York’s Magnet Theatre Company leads an improvisational comedy workshop on Mephistos Lounge.

A member of both Boy Meets Tractor and Vertigo-go, Swarthmore’s only sketch comedy group and improvised comedy troupe respectively, Thomas Powers ’13 is also the organizer and programmer for Comedy Weekend, a spring comedy festival where different groups are invited to come to campus and perform or hold workshops. According to Powers, the first Comedy Weekend was mainly about “Raising Comedy Awareness,” which conveyed the message of hoping to inject more comedy into Swarthmore through bringing outside groups’ performances and workshops. These activities can enable people to try out many different kinds of comedies, like improv or sketch comedy.

The Comedy Weekend was able to bring comedy acts to Swarthmore to perform for the first time at the college. Former member of Vertigo-go Brian Ratcliffe ’11 returned to campus to participate in Comedy Weekend. Ratcliffe believes that “through the many workshops that are offered, students have the rare opportunity to learn directly from these up-and-coming masters of their craft.” This combination of great performances and professional workshops “makes Comedy Weekend a strange and precious thing, indeed,” he said.

Many Swarthmore alumni are contributing enormously to the comedy industry. According to Morgan Williams ’14, a member of Vertigo-go, Comedy Weekend enables them to return to Swarthmore and to “‘give back’, to teach current students what they’ve learned.” On this past Sunday, Sam Dingman (04), Neil Dandade (06), and Morgan Phillips (96), who were all vertigo-go members, led a workshop on “comedy after Swarthmore”, and offered insight into how a student who aspires to go into comedy and improv can find a place in the world.

“Acting is storytelling, and stories are what connect us to each other,” Ratcliffe said. Ratcliffe is currently living in Philadelphia and is pursuing a career in theater. He acts in both devised and scripted productions around the city. He is also on a House Team at the Philly Improv Theater. While at Swarthmore he was a member of Vertigo-go for all four years and participated in other dramatic outlets. He acted in productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Demetrius, “12 Angry Men” as Juror No. 8, and “Metamorphoses” while a member of Senior Company. “As a theater spectator,” he said, “I love that moment when something onstage is able to move or excite me, to strike up a resonance inside me.” As an actor, he is looking for the moments that can “remind us of our shared humanity.”

The workshop this past Saturday especially provided participants insights that can be applied not only to acting in a comedic scenario, but also to create humour out of the little things in life. It consisted of increasingly complicated scenarios. The first scene had participants act as if they had knives which they then pretended to throw — with accompanying sound effects — at their fellow actors. To perform these scenarios in the workshop required a lot of careful attention to very trivial eye contact and body language, as well as delicate cooperation among the players.

Russ Armstrong, one of the instructors at The Magnet Theater in New York, led the workshop. In his first time teaching a workshop at Swarthmore College, Russ felt that “college students tend to be a bit less jaded than you can sometimes get with grizzled 10-year vets. And they’re much more at ease with getting weird than some adults.”

“I thoroughly enjoyed every single aspect of the workshop, and I found that Russ’s tips and exercises on how to balance multiple-character scenes were the most applicable to the kind of forms that we have been working on this semester,” Williams said.

One such scene concluded the workshop, the “worst best-friends game.” In the scenario, two people acted as the eponymous best-friends, who visited a third person’s house, hoping to comfort their friend who is in low spirits. However, the two friends are constantly distracted while attempting to offer suggestions on how to feel better, eventually forgetting about their friend altogether. “This helped us learn how to make two characters work towards a common goal, while maintaining a thematic relationship between themselves,” Williams said. The game indicated a way to homogenize not just the personalities of the characters, but also “the objectives and habits of the friends in the scene,” he added.

Ratcliffe also participated in the workshop. His favorite game was “Peas In A Pod,” in which players mirror what his or her scene partner is doing. In addition to being extremely hilarious, Ratcliffe also thinks that “this delightful humor of those scenes arose effortlessly, without much straining on the part of the players to be creative or funny.”

In this workshop, Powers especially appreciates how the participants were able to create their characters “from a tiny suggestion, and then let them go and see what kind of other quirks or traits we pick up with them.” He also mentioned, “I enjoyed one of the Mamet Speaks exercises when we were sitting in chairs together and creating the same character with the same universal gesture/sound.” The Mamet Speaks exercise is in reference to David Mamet, a well-known American playright. Mamet’s characters usually interrupt one another, their sentences trail off, and their dialogue always overlaps.

Theater, for Williams, is magic. “It is tricking people into believing something, and taking that belief on a roller coaster ride,” he said. Comedy possesses a very similar magic for him. Sometimes, he makes people laugh at something that they never thought they would laugh at before. “You’re changing their precepts and stigmas, and you’re doing just a little bit to break down norms and turn the world a degree off its axis,” he said.

Powers believed acting and the comedy groups make him feels like “a chance for a bunch of people who are over-worked and under-slept to forget about their final paper, or their lab report and try to have fun during practices and forget all that other stuff.”

“Swarthmore has great comedy talent, and that talent deserves to be featured and shared from time to time,” Williams said.

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