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February 17, 2012

Meet the New Generation

Time may fly when you’re having fun, but it goes even faster when you spend an hour with Off-Off Campus. In light of its seventh week show and the first sketch appearance of the 26th Generation (Off-Off campus’s new first-years), I got to sit in on the improv group’s training rehearsal and its accompanying shenanigans. Considering how hilarious this group is even when it’s not on stage, I highly recommend shelling out $4 and heading down to University Church tonight at 9 p.m. to laugh uproariously.

The members of the new generation are Davio Cianci, Ilana Urman, Eric Stone, Will Stack, Natalya Samee, Haley Johnson, Peter Herman and Patrick Ford. Conversation with the New Generation and the select members of the third-year class chosen to train them demonstrated their improvisational savvy. No matter what I asked them, they inevitably peppered their answers with biblical references, a shout-out to their upcoming show Great Moments in Church History: a Reenactment of the Establishment of the Nicene Creed during the First Council of Nicea and Moments in the Life of Gregory VII, née Hildebrand (Based on a True Story) . . . (Be very, very afraid.) The 26th Generation members have varying levels of experience with comedy and improv, but they all carry themselves with aplomb and deal with interviews like bosses.

The new Generation will be performing at the After-Glow, Off-Off’s campus’s aftershow. Their first performance arrives after a quarter and a half of training. Cianci described the process as something along the lines of the directors saying “Go,” and then explaining everything they did wrong afterwards. Peter qualified the directors’ input: “They definitely gave us things to think about before we put on our performance.” They also side-coach, since an improv scene certainly cannot be edited in the middle of a show.

One question that annoys Harmon Siegel (A.B. ’13), a member of the 24th generation and one of the new generation’s trainers, is the ubiquitous “But why do you need to train for improv?” Samee provides the answer: “It’s like a muscle, you have to exercise it.” Training helps build teamwork skills, so when the group is in the middle of a scene, they know that a fellow comedian can be its “savior.” Fall quarter training included a number of trust exercises and group work. Even for the people with prior experience, the training was valuable. “You can always be a better actor,” Urman said.

For Eric Stone (A.B. ’15), who first began improv training at a “Shakespeare workshop camp thing,” improv has been an on-again, off-again kind of relationship, but, for now, at least, one he is committed to. Although, pre-college, he was stolen away by “the seductress . . .the Jezebel, musical theater,” it sounds like Eric is back to stay. “Screw musical theater, I’m in improv again,” he said.

This quarter, the New Generation has attended some field trips to improv shows. According to Samee, “You have to see improv live.” So, no YouTube viewing or Comedy Central reruns for this group. There were also some improv theory lessons, with exercises that have names almost as funny as the actual comedy (e.g. “asscat”). And, once and for all, for anyone still skeptical of improv practice, take Cianci’s word for it. “We don’t just go up and just do improv,” Cianci said.

There are also training sessions that consist solely of group writing and work on collaborative efforts. As Samee pointed out, “Improv gives ideas for sketches.” The characters the group members create during improv can be expanded upon with longer and more planned-out projects.

In addition to being an art, at least according to Urman, improv can also be an invaluable job skill builder. Urman has received comments that she handles unexpected turns in an interview very well, and according to Evan Weiss, another 24th generation trainer, Chicago Career din Business (CCIB) brings in Second City to help their students improve their interview techniques.

Not everyone is a fan of Off -Off, however, and the directors want their New Generation to understand that, which is why another field trip was participating in a Nicolas Cage impersonation contest underneath the movie screen at Doc Films the night National Treasure was playing. Peter explained that the point of this exercise was to practice performing in front of people who don’t want you there. This sounds like a valuable life lesson, even though this group should not have a problem with audience reception.

My time with Off-Off ended with a shameless but beautiful plug for the Church history main show. The costumes alone are apparently worth the price of admission, and Siegal is expecting massive exoduses of people. Expect to see the twelve tribes, the pope, and various other people of religious significance, so definitely grab some friends and all of your humor receptors and watch out for the Popemobile on your way to University Church tonight.

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