The future of funny: Hope for improv comedy

Posted on September 10, 2012 in Arts & Culture, Features
By Sam Hill

Members of the improv group, Focus Group, act as though they are seeing the sun for the first time at Portland Improv Festival.
Casey LeDoux
Members of the improv group, Focus Group, act as though they are seeing the sun for the first time at Portland Improv Festival.
Casey Ledoux

Everyone enjoys a good laugh. Whether it’s caused by the ridiculous adventures of your favorite animated TV character, a cynical cat meme on the internetor just by a friend sharing a dirty joke, laughter can lift your spirits, relieve stress and make your day a lot better. While a lot of people rely on scripted comedies and age-old jokes for entertainment, there’s a movement starting in Portland that aims to find comedy in the lives of everyday people. With a lack of venues for comedy in the area, improvisers are fighting to keep their art form alive.

This past weekend Lucid Stage Company hosted the third-annual Portland Improv Festival, featuring 15 comedy troupes who choose to entertain the crowd the hard way: without a script. Every performance is a spontaneous creation, straight from the minds of the performers.. Most groups ask for a simple suggestion from the audience and take off from there, creating an entirely different world on stage from traditional theater. A suggestion of the classic song “Baby Got Back” by Sir-Mix-A-Lot can quickly turn into a tale of foolish hospital room adventures, and the topic of marriage develops into the alarming confession of a man diagnosed with terminal flatulence.

The festival, started by Rachel Flehinger three years ago at The St. Lawrence Arts Center, was created in order to bring together comedians and improvisors she had worked with in the past. Improv students in Portland tend to find that, after honing their skills through class and instruction, there are no local venues or groups to help them showcase their talent. This unfriendly climate for improv-lovers has made creating a network of performers a difficult task.

“Improv is difficult to break into,” said Liz McMahon, directer at Lucid Stage and co-organizer of the festival. “Everyone finds out about the festival in a different way, but they’re all ready to get involved immediately. Performers are looking for events like this and the festival is a one-of-a-kind event in Maine right now.”

Improv comedy hasn’t made it’s mark in Maine yet like it has in major cities across the country, but there are dedicated performers here that are willing to try and make it happen.

Dennis Price, a member of the Brewer-based comedy troupe Focus Group, has been working hard with his team to perform across the entire state, introducing Mainers to improv comedy and getting them involved. Focus Group, who performed in the festival, specializes in various long-form games, each performer bouncing back and forth between portraying multiple characters.

“Improv in Maine is disjointed,” Price said. “There are little pockets of talented performers scattered throughout the state, but it’s hard for us to find each other. Events like this really help to connected performers throughout New England and raise awareness.”

Various out-of-state groups managed to come up to Maine for the festival as well, testing the waters of Portland and urging audience members to demand more events. Over the past three years, the Portland community has grown to love the festival and expect nothing less than pure hilarity.

“The audience here in Portland is fantastic,” said Rhode Island native performer, Beth Hicks. “Everyone always comes to these shows with arms wide open, and they’re always ready to laugh. It’s a great environment. I love performing for an active and involved audience.”

Hicks performs a one-woman show that she calls “Group Therapy.” Inspired by a break-up, the show consists of Hicks choosing a subject, whether it be intimate relationships, guilty crushes, or awkward dates, and discussing her experiences with the audience. This year she told the audience about her serious infatuation with ex-Vice President Dick Cheney and invited audience members on stage to talk about their own crushes as well. The audience was not at all phased by this unorthodox combination of stand-up comedy and therapy, getting involved immediately and participating throughout the evening.

“I love getting the audience involved,” said Hicks. ” I want to hear stories. Truth is a lot stranger and funnier than fiction.”

Another troupe, Ca$h Only, came from new York to represent People’s Improv Theatre. Ca$h Only takes a single suggestion from the audience and proceeds to perform one long scene, essentially creating their very own improvised one-act play. It’s amazing to watch an entire story unfold in front of you that came from a one-word suggestion. The performers are able to portray multiple strong and unique characters and manage to stay completely in character despite the absurd antics that they create on stage.

Lucid Stage has been the festival’s home for the past two years, but they will not be open for another season due to financial reasons, leaving the future of the event in limbo.

“We want to do this again next year,” said McMahon. “This is too unique  an event to let fall by the wayside. We just need to find another venue.”

Improvisers across the state will continue to try and introduce people to improvisational comedy. They only hope that Portland has gotten a good taste at the festival and will come to demand more for years to come.

“The festival will be back one way or another next year,” said McMahon. “There are too many supporters for it not to come back.”