What is improv? It is the joy of performing, usually with a partner, knowing you will look good when you make your partner look good, even though neither of you knows what they are doing. I coach an improv group in Philadelphia called the Time Bandits. We meet weekly, to laugh and have fun, and to go over acting and improv skills that the Time Bandits will use in their shows. The group is made up of 9 members, I interviewed 1/3 of them for their thoughts and feeling about Time Bandits and improv in Philadelphia. Meet Judy Weightman, Jack Presby and Tomas Isakowitz. If you wonder why we decided on this as a group name, realize we almost were called Geezerprov. Yeesh! Bill McLaughlin, a former member of Time Bandits, said it one night and the group all liked it. I personally like it because it makes me think of Monty Python – there is the movie by the same name containing members of that famous comedy group.
What is Time Bandits and what do you guys do?
Judy: We’re an improv team — we perform long-form improvisational comedy, which is more character-driven than the kind of improv you’d see on “Whose Line Is It Anyway.”
Jack: Time Bandits are an independent improv team made up of performers that are over 45 years old. We perform a style of improv called LaRonde. LaRonde is basically a relationship based set of scenes that are grounded in reality, where edits are made one actor at a time, giving the initial actor a chance to be seen in a different light/circumstance/relationship.
Tomas: We are an improv team whose members are all 45 years and older. We practice weekly and perform about once or twice a month. We support each other in improving our improv skills.
Long form improv is the flavor where there is very little back-and-forth from the audience. Sometimes a single word can propel a long form for a half-hour or an hour! Short form improvisation works throughout the show with the audience, getting suggestions and/or participation and scenes are hosted, and much shorter. Whose Line Is It Anyway? is an example of short form – it started as a British radio show and became a television show before an American version of the show which ran until 2007.
Our current form is the LaRonde. If, in a LaRonde, you were to imagine four improvisers and if each was a one character we could call them characters A, B, C, and D. The improvisers perform in two person scenes, and the scenes rotate in a cycle. A and B perform a scene. B and C perform a scene. C and D perform a scene. D and A perform a scene. The characters do not change. A is the same character when performing with B as he or she is when performing with D. The goal is is to develop characters and relationships, not to be funny.
What makes you the same as other improv groups in Philadelphia? What makes you different?
Judy: We’re the same because we love improv comedy and make it a priority to practice and perform regularly. We’re different because all of our members are 45 or older.
Jack: Most of us have been trained by the same instructors. What makes us different is our style of play (LaRonde) which I haven’t seen performed by another group and was only briefly touched on in one of my many classes.
Tomas: First off, age. There are lots of teams with younger folks in them. We find it difficult and awkward to work with such teams because we experience different cultural and social experiences. In Time Bandits we get the opportunity to work with people who share our experiences. We also do a specific form of improv called La Ronde.
What are your rehearsals like?
Judy: We stand in a circle to warm up with a few games, all of which involve taking turns or passing moves from person to person. These games loosen us up and get us tuned into each other, to make us more responsive to what other people are saying and doing. Then we practice a particular skill (portraying emotions, miming activities and the use of objects, etc.), chosen by our coach, who also comes up with a game or activity that helps us work on that skill. Finally, we run through one or more practice sets, similar to what we’d do in a show, and our coach gives us feedback on what worked particularly well or particularly badly. There’s always a lot of laughter and teasing and inside jokes along the way!
Jack: Our rehearsals are quite busy. We do warm up games and occasionally small workshops on different technique and methods. Rehearsals also include running sets, the number of times varies based on when performances are scheduled. Rehearsals to me are a highlight of my week. I am always guaranteed laughter and support.
Tomas: Fun. Lots of warm-up games followed by “make believe” performances (“make believe” because there is an audience of 1: Rick). We have a great time most times. We laugh at ourselves, our mistakes, and at our funny moments and do not feel judged.
Doing warm ups are usually the peppiest and most fun parts of our time together. It is helpful for getting started doing something together, and simultaneously gets us “tuned in” to each other. One warm up we do is named Rick Clap. You turn to the person next to you, make eye contact and try to both say the name of the person receiving the clap (snicker snicker) and clap at the same time. It is usually really fun, even when we don’t get it right. And we can change directions and pick new spots in the circle to make it even harder!! We play other warm ups that isolate emotion, or mimicry, or ingenuity, or whatever. I try to keep picking new warm ups to keep it fresh and new. That is my job. Sometimes I invent warm ups.
How do you handle it when you can’t come up with something on stage?
Judy: The scariest challenge for me is leaving the back line and going out in the middle of the stage when I don’t have anything super specific in mind — I’ll just exaggerate my walk out to center stage in some way and see what that opens up for me in terms of a character (am I bold? nervous? flirtatious?), or pick an emotion to portray. After the scene gets going, you find out what that action/emotion means! Coming up with something is not as scary for me in the middle of the scene, because you’re always out there with a partner, so you can just listen to your partner and try to respond honestly to what he or she is giving you. The weird thing is you don’t have to try to be funny — in fact, when you do try to be funny, you usually aren’t. Listen and react and see what happens, and the funny will come. Or not. And that’s okay — it’s on to the next scene.
Jack: I try and not think about it. When I’m stuck quite often I’ll say the first thing that pops into my head. Hoping my partner will have my back.
Tomas: I jump right into it. Something will come out.
People often wonder what happens if something inappropriate comes out? I coach my folks to play to the top of their intelligence but sometimes it does happen. We are all adults so we handle it but depending on what is said depends on how proud or apologetic we are. 🙂 Recently there was a show where was was said was horribly wrong, and we all noticed it and we tried our best to pretend it didn’t even happen, but to no avail. We may not have been most proud of our work that particular night, but I believe you have to try new things, so there is calculated, expected failure that is a part of playing in front of a crowd that I feel is invaluable both to the performer and the audience. Most of the time when the “wrong” thing happens we just pay attention to it and i turn it into the right thing! 99% of the time we make the person who did the “wrong” thing look like a genius.
Do you think improv is a practiced skill or do you think it’s a natural talent?
Judy: Little bit of both. Some people are way better at it than others, and I think that’s based on natural talent — but if you enjoy doing it, you can learn the skills that will make you a decent performer. I’m not looking to become a big comedy star, I’m looking to have fun!
Jack: You need some talent, but, you also need to practice and watch as much as you can. Just watching good scene work has helped as much as some lessons. It’s not easy. Nor should it be. But I believe a certain amount of talent is needed to even get started.
Tomas: Some might have a natural talent, but for most of us it is definitely a practiced skill. I jump right into it. Something will come out.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into improv, or comedy in general?
Judy: If you’re doing it for fun — just do it! Take a class or two, find some people you enjoy playing with, and go for it! If you want a career in comedy — no clue, sorry!
Jack: Go for it. Keep in mind that there is hard work and sacrifice ahead. And don’t expect instant results. You will have great self doubt. Insecurity and jealousy will also stop by to add their two cents. But you will also meet some great people who will support you. You will fall in love with the whole scene and be happy you made the choice.
Tomas: Jump right into it. Don’t look back. You will make a fool of yourself so many times that you won’t care any more and then you’ll finally be funny!
Find and friend the Time Bandits online! More about the group, and showtimes available.