Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Toast is far from burnt out

A look inside one of UMass’s premiere improv comedy troupes
Courtesy of Nadine Chidester

I’m sitting in a nondescript classroom at the University of Massachusetts’ Herter Hall, surrounded by a bleak fortress of concrete walls. In front of me sits three metal chairs, aligned in a row on the back of the stage. On a bright blue chalkboard matching the room’s stadium-style seating, a series of doodles depict the ten members of the long-form improv troupe, Toast, next to a bubble-lettered message that reads “TOAST IS EVIL.” In what feels like an instant, the room swells full of people as 90s alternative music reverberates from the echoey walls. There’s a palpable excitement in the air.

The clock strikes 8 p.m. The crowd looks around frantically in anticipation. They begin to chant, “Toast! Toast! Toast!” eager to start the show. They continue to scream, until suddenly, down the room’s larger side pathways, the troupe’s members run to the stage, high-fiving audience members along the way. The room erupts in cheers. At this moment, they are no longer just student comedians — they are rock stars.

Nadine Chidester, a junior natural resources conservation major by day and Toast director by night, triumphantly stands at center stage with an ear-to-ear grin. They look out to the crowd, their brunette curls bouncing as they yell, “I need a building with a lot of rooms… Go!” They jump off-stage, listening intently to each suggestion in the stands. Finally, Chidester rejoins their fellow performers, now slightly out of breath. “We’re going with… a castle!” they say affirmatively.

This particular performance follows the “Sawyer” form, a sort-of improv “genre” where all performers start the show with their backs to the audience. One by one, they introduce themselves in-character, keeping that persona until the end of the night. Without any scripts, entire storylines and character arcs are crafted live on stage.

On a pleasantly warm Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Chidester outside UMass’s Student Union. “In the case of a Sawyer, we get the suggestion and then we line up,” they said smiling, wearing a summery, white dress with red flowers. “Sometimes I’ll be really inspired by a suggestion. I’m like, ‘I know exactly who I want to be.’ Sometimes I’ll take inspiration from real people I know.”

“In the Castle show, I didn’t know which character I wanted to be,” Chidester continued. “I’m standing at the end of the line, finding out what relationships I can think of with these other characters that have already been created… Where can I fit into this puzzle?”

Being funny is no easy task, but Toast has improv down to a science. Each of the group’s rehearsals are grounded by a “base reality,” which Chidester describes as “who we are and what we’re doing.” From there, if something surprising happens, like an actor revealing a strange character trait, the group expands upon that oddity. It’s the classic “yes, and…” mentality. “Basically, we’re saying that if this unusual thing is true, then we need to justify our weird choices that we’re making,” Chidester said.

In many ways, Toast’s existence is entirely miraculous. No one seems to know the exact date that the troupe was founded, but Chidester jokes that it was “around the late 1900s.” Nevertheless, Toast continues to provide an outlet for the creative and witty.

“It’s kind of like playing pretend but for adults and I love that,” Chidester said. “I didn’t have devices when I was younger, really, so a lot of my time was spent playing pretend with my brothers. It’s very cool to create a world with your friends that you can be immersed in.”

As Toast’s director, Chidester is responsible for leading rehearsals, but all members work as a team to refine their comedic chops.

“We choose the form as a group by picking out a couple that we want to try that week, trying them, and then all members who will be performing in that show get to vote,” said Sunny Nordberg, a junior double major in theater and English and member of Toast since the fall of 2022. “The concept of director really only comes into play with shows for introducing Toast and getting a suggestion, but beyond that, everyone contributes to the actual content of the show itself.”

Teamwork and collaboration go far beyond just their rehearsals. The group is a part of the larger UMass Comedy League, a Registered Student Organization which also includes Toast’s sister troupes Mission Improvable and Sketch-22. While each ensemble holds their own performances, they’re all a happy family, and frequently attend each other’s shows while offering support and laughter from the stands.

“Most of Toast is very nerdy,” Chidester explains, laughing in-between words. “We like D&D, we have a lot of personality and we’re all very strong characters. We’re all friends.”

From an onlooker’s perspective, it’s easy to think that each performance is equally polished thanks to the troupe’s quick-thinking, but there’s times when making audiences laugh proves difficult.

“We’ve had shows where not a lot of people can perform,” Chidester said. “We’ll have like three people performing and then also the audience is small, so there’s no energy to feed off. One time we had a show where people were walking out. That was really kind of soul-crushing.”

“But,” they continued, “we have each other’s backs. They’re going to support me and I’m going to support them. We’re going to get through it together and we’re gonna have a good time. I just remind myself that I’m with my friends on stage, and the only approval I care about is making them laugh.”

Toast performs weekly on the UMass campus. As Chidester and the ensemble’s many talented members have proven, Toast is far from burnt out.


Nathan Legare can be reached at [email protected].

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