ST. PETERSBURG — In music or in theater, making it up as one goes along — successfully so, anyway — is tougher than it may look.
Good luck, the right timing, attention to detail and the right amount of guts will get you everywhere. Short attention spans and missed cues, though, spell certain death.
For five Eckerd College students, the right set of attributes has landed them a slot at the Chicago Improv Festival, a weeklong showcase of the most talented improvisational comedy acts across the globe. They perform at 9 tonight at Chicago’s Playground Theatre.
The students are part of an 11-member improv group called Another Man’s Trash. They’re one of two college groups performing among established actors and troupes in a city where the careers of John Belushi and John Candy were launched courtesy of Second City.
Before this, “Another Man’s Trash” never traveled north of Georgia in its six years of existence.
“As nervous as I feel, it’s also an exceptional feeling,” said senior Geoffrey Fella, the troupe’s director. “You feel like you’re really doing something excellent in front of a lot of people, which is really what we strive to do all the time, but this time we’re doing it in front of people who do like we do, a bunch of other improvisers, so that really is a treat.”
The group formed in 2008 and consists of a revolving cast. Co-founder Gavin Hawke, an associate professor of theatre at Eckerd College, said getting accepted into festival, which he considers the Sundance Film Festival of improv, is the group’s biggest accomplishment yet.
“The fact that they’re going to the Chicago Improv Festival is just huge,” he said. “I’m not surprised because they’re really good.”
That’s a far cry from their performance digs on campus, where they take the stage about once a month at the 374-seat Miller Theater.
There, they pack the house with more than 400 giddy classmates, plus some people standing — most of them friends.
“It’s a very nurturing area to do improv,” said James Auer, a junior. “You make a joke — you even smile in a scene — and people go crazy.”
Auer, a marine geology major, said he usually plays a gawky nerd with a nasally voice who provides essential information, scientific or otherwise, within a scene.
“I think that one of the main things that actually speaks to how solid of a group we are is that we’re getting into this festival, and it’s not just drunk college kids watching us,” he said.
It also means they’ll have to be on top of their game. It’s not just a chance to perform in front of a new audience, but a way to network.
Auer and Fella said they would both like to pursue improv acting after college, and it would be wise to make a good impression and a few contacts.
“I want to get a lot out of this trip,” Auer said.
Shows usually begin with the troupe asking the audience to offer up the last text message they received and go from there.
“That will be a first kind of line and then we’ll do a scene,” Fella said. “Which is pretty risky, but every now and then they yield some pretty good stuff.”
What ensues is a series of vignettes that are supposed to somehow connect to an overarching story line. An actor can walk onstage whenever he or she sees an opportunity to build on the story, and tag someone else out.
“In the vignette, if you’re not paying attention, don’t even stand on the stage,” senior Chris Higgins said.
“You miss a key piece of information, a character got killed off, a big event happened to someone, and you come in as that character, it’s just done.”
Two of the group’s other performers, sophomore Andrea Petruccelli and recent graduate Matt Walker, also will participate.