Last Friday January 20, Bates College was filled with the unexpected. The comedy team Mission IMPROVable presented their Always Original show in Memorial Commons. The show is constantly new because it is created on the spot based on audience participation – the audience gives ideas for places, objects, and characters and the “mission” starts. The show was created by four actors: Agent Pepperjack, Agent Sugarbear, Agent Binary, and Agent X. Mission IMPROVable had the incredible capacity of creating laughter out of anything, from “riding a miniature giraffe” to having a fictitious breakfast with Zac Efron.
There is one thing Mission IMPROVable did impressively well: creating comedy out of participation. It is typical of improvisation comedy to call on their audience, simultaneously drawing inspiration and laughter out of embarrassment. Different from typical comedy, the spectator is far from passive. Mission IMPROVable drew constantly from audience participation, soliciting input and choosing assistant “agents.” The audience could provide any setting, characters, and imaginary props of a scene, and then the actors would create the scene impromptu. As good improvisation often does, Mission IMPROVable also drew from the specifics of the place that they presented, in this case Bates, by mentioning Newman’s Day and Puddle Jump, traditions of our college. Personally, I felt always on the verge of being called on stage (and I was, at one point). It is this excitement and surprise that makes improvisation comedy a unique experience.
When I was called to a surprise “mission,” I realized that I was not supposed to be the passive spectator I usually am. In the “mission” I was called onto stage for, the agents were speaking statues. They developed the scene as they performed, but their bodies remained still unless my other audience partner or I decided to move the actors. We were free to move them however we wished, challenging the “agents” to create meaning out of the unexpected poses. Improvisation comedy involves a sense of wonder: how to make sense out of their nearly random poses? How to create everything out of nothing? More often than not, I found that there is always something profound behind laughter – and improvisation comedy has a unique way to make something wonderful out of playfulness.
Mission IMPROVable was able to turn randomness into humor. From experience, I have noted that comedy is often overlooked as an art form, despite being one of the hardest and most complex genres: transforming what is seemingly absurd into something meaningful seems easy when watching a show by experienced performers – Agent Pepperjack has been performing for over ten years!
Comedy has a relaxed atmosphere that can overshadow copious amounts of practice. The perfect example is the last “mission” of the show. These last short performances involved creating complex, coordinated scenes using only gibberish words and body language. Three actors had to explain to the fourth actor an entire scene in gibberish. I cannot describe how convincing their gibberish was. It is not easy to explain someone that they are “wearing Donald J. Trump” without using actual words! Now imagine explaining “you are having breakfast with Zac Efron, but your eggs are rocks and your toast is cyanide.” Believe it or not, they did it nearly perfectly.
On my way out of the performance, a friend told me: “I have never seen anyone speaking gibberish that well; there is no way!” I remember leaving the show trying to mimic gibberish to come to one conclusion – fluently speaking gibberish is more than child’s play.