Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Mission: IMPROVable brings improv theater to the UMass campus

The troupe is a part of the UMass Comedy League

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(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Bonnie Chen

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As you wait to be let into the auditorium, you hear the words to Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown,” ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way” and other lively decade sing-alongs. This is only one of Mission: IMPROVable’s many traditions.

The doors to Herter room 231 open a few minutes before the start of the 8 p.m. shows every Saturday. From their explosive entrance to the flashy transitions between improv games accompanied by classic hits like “1985” and “Walking on Sunshine,” this short-form improvisational comedy troupe within the University of Massachusetts Comedy League has been bringing laughter to the UMass campus since 1991.

Improvisation, or improv, is a form of live theater in which characters, plot and dialogue of a scene or story are made up on the spot.

(Bonnie Chen/Daily Collegian)

Members of the troupe range in experience, some having done improv or theater in high school and some with no improv experience. Their majors also range from wildlife conservation to communications. But despite their varied backgrounds, they all come together to form Mission: IMPROVable.

At the beginning of each semester, hopeful applicants go through the process of audition rounds, callbacks and finally improv sessions with current members to assess their promise and dynamic with the troupe.

There is no set limit to the number of people that can be in the troupe, but there are currently 11 members, including four who have joined this semester – the “Newbies.”

Another one of the group’s traditions is the “Newb Show,” where the new members get to perform. Up until that point, the newest members just sit aside on Saturdays as they get familiar with the group. It is also at that show that they are given their “Agent Names” – a homage to the troupe’s name which is a play on the “Mission Impossible” movie franchise. Agent names are decided upon by the members of the group and given to the Newbies at their end-of-semester Newb Show.

The newest members of the troupe usually work behind the scenes at the shows, rotating responsibilities such as running lights, sounds and taking notes on the shows. But they get the ability to practice their craft at rehearsals three times a week with the rest of the troupe. The rehearsals are geared not only toward their weekly shows, but also toward getting the Newbies ready for their first performance.

Timothy McNamara, a senior communications major also known as “Scoops,” is the director of Mission: IMPROVable. As director, he plans rehearsals and facilitates the weekly shows.

Six members rotate performing every week, along with a different host every week. The host is chosen through seniority, while also making sure that everyone gets a turn. The host then chooses the improv games that get played and introduces the troupe at the start of their show.

Rehearsals consist of check-ins with group members about their daily lives, warm-up games, scene work and then the practice of specific improv concepts that would eventually be integrated into improv games and onto the stage at performances.

“I think something that could surprise some people that don’t know what we do is that we’re not just practicing doing improv,” said Zachary Gousland, communications and psychology double major, also known as “Roadtrip.” “We’re learning new concepts of improv or new techniques or just trying to master our skills.”

He added, “It’s never really, ‘Oh, let’s practice improv because we’ve got it down.’ It’s more of, ‘How can we get better at the craft?’”

UMass and Mission: IMPROVable alum Arthur Hayden described rehearsals as comparable to sports practices as they are working on their improv techniques as athletes work on their muscles. As a baseball player would work on catching a ball, the troupe works on saying “yes” to each other in scenes and building good rapport.

Mission: IMPROVable’s sense of closeness can be felt when watching from the audience. It’s apparent every time they build scenes effortlessly off of each other or when a member breaks character laughing at the other.

(Bonnie Chen/Daily Collegian)

Their cohesiveness can also be seen through another one of their traditions, in which they are only allowed to wear their troupe shirts when performing along with jean pants. As much as it is a tradition, it also helps them to embody their troupe characters and “agent names” on stage with names like “Ranger,” “Hotmail” and “Riot.”

Producer of Mission IMPROVable and Chairperson of the Comedy League, Jane Gogarty, said that this is an important tradition.

“I think it comes from the fact that we [want to] save our ‘Mission personas’ for the stage,” she said. “Like, I am only ‘Zest’ when I’m onstage, so I wouldn’t wear my Mission uniform unless I was performing.”

“I think there’s also something to be said about how well we are able to communicate with each other because of how much time we spend with each other in rehearsals and outside of rehearsals,” said communications major Jen Gately, also known as “Ivy.”

“I think a lot of the professional conversations we have are very imbued with our own emotional sensitivities toward each other,” Gately added.

Bonnie Chen can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @BonnieChenn.

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