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Improv With Attitude gags UMass

Every Friday night, I.W.A., or Improv With Attitude, puts on performances for the student body. The group performs at 8 p.m. for about two hours. The performance is heavily based on improv-comedy, acting within certain guidelines or incorporating suggestions from the crowd into it. The cast reminds the audience before each show that theirs is not a “family-friendly” performance.

This past Friday night, there was an added surprise to the group’s performance. They had an opening act put on by “Sit-Down” comedian Jay Petron.  His personal view of comedy was that everyone in his profession presented their material in the same stand-up format and by presenting his in an opposite medium, it would stick better to the fore-thoughts of audience members.

Following Petron’s act, the show began with a bit of unintended improv, as second year cast member Adam Graper nearly knocked over the podium up on the stage in Herter 231. Following his scramble to set it upright again, he laughed and asked the crowd, “Isn’t it funny when things are improvised?”

He then went on to describe the upcoming show, explaining that it would occur in two different sets. Each set would act within certain prescripts that vary from show to show. The first set bounced back and forth between four different sketches with common phrases and words relating them to what the troupe members were saying. The second set depended on audience suggestion; the performers were given the example of the Donner Party for a story-telling, campfire setting.

Rehearsals for the group take place three times a week, Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. In total, the cast members spend about seven hours a week working on different types of improv comedy. They rehearse in both Dickinson and Herter, the latter the place of their Friday night performances. So, according to senior troupe member Andy Devlin, “don’t expect to catch a show in Dickinson.”

I.W.A. is not the only comedy troupe on campus. There are two others, Sketch 22 and Mission Improvable, all three of which make up one RSO. Of the three, Sketch 22 is the only group that does not use improv comedy. Members of the three groups actually participate in the others’ shows from time to time. Both Andy Devlin and Peter Storey from last Friday’s I.W.A. performance are also members of Sketch 22.

The art of the improvisation itself is presented in I.W.A.’s weekly performances. Senior members of the troupe describe what they do as a short introduction of the audience to what they call long-form improv performances. Simplified further, they like to think of what they do as an improvised play, with acts and scenes shifting and changing as they continue along, in order to best entertain their audience. Returning troupe member Tony Czajkowski describes the situation as I.W.A. being “deep dish pizza,” while Mission Improvable provides only a “thin crust.”

Some of the performers are unsure whether or not the audience fully understands what they do, but rest assured whenever the audiences break out in laughter.

I.W.A. has existed for about four years. Prior to 2005, the group was simply known as Toast!, with more or less the same mission of the current I.W.A., to make people laugh. Before Toast! was established in 2003, there were no improvised comedy group on campus at UMass Amherst.

Auditions are usually held once each semester for new members. Information is provided on the website www.studentvalleyproductions.com, under the tab “Groups.” Information for the other comedy troupes on campus can be found on the website as well.

As second-year cast member, Sean Toland has said on more than one occasion, “we provide a drug-free alternative for students on a Friday night, at least until 10 p.m.”

Tim Wallace can be reached at timothyw@student.umass.edu.

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