Friday, November 17, 2017
Education

Eckerd College improv group takes its popular act to a bigger stage

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ST. PETERSBURG

College is funny. Geoffrey Fella, a skinny senior with a handlebar mustache, knows it. He lives it. Says all he has to do is point to it. There is no other time in students' lives when they'll have this much structure. There is no other time when they will all live together. Swipe a card and there's food for them. Walk into the classes prepared for them.

"People are taking care of us like we're babies," says Fella. "All we have to do is make sure we wake up at the right time, and don't destroy ourselves, and that's not even happening. People go crazy all the time."

This is the fodder of Another Man's Trash, the popular student-run improv group at Eckerd College. Since 2008, the group has been holding shows riffing on the wealthy, white, partying young adults who cram into Miller Auditorium by the hundreds.

Now the 11-member team is leaving St. Petersburg in search of its biggest audience yet. On Friday night, members will perform at Playground Theater as part of the Chicago Improv Festival — one of only two college improv groups in the world accepted to perform at what is arguably the largest event of its kind.

"Improv," short for improvisation, requires its players to make up fictions on their feet: To create a story out of thin air and build on it with team members.

Unlike skits that are as scripted as their college lives, there are no tracks or obvious right courses of action for the students on the improv stage. Say you're in a throne room. Say your niece might like a Vera Bradley purse for her birthday and there it is, paisley or polka-dotted.

Because everything and anything can go right in improv, everything and anything can go wrong. The trick is to let it, though not everyone can.

• • •

In 2007 there was a student named Jake Huzenis who lived and breathed improv. Hailing from Chicago, he was raised on the Annoyance Theatre and Second City, taking classes and attending shows.

At Eckerd, he spent hours debating improv philosophies with his professor, Gavin Hawk, himself a performer. Everybody has a unique approach to improv, but there are some agreed upon rules.

The main one is to never negate. If a player says you are on an island, you should not say, "No, we're at a supermarket." The golden rule of thumb is "Yes, and." Agree and build. We're on an island and I can't believe you forgot the sunscreen.

In many ways, the college setting is ideal for an improv group. Campus is small, and students like seeing their friends up on stage. People, in general, laugh when things are true.

My dorm is just like that.

That's exactly what freshmen are like.

Students wear T-shirts with the team's faces on it. Another Man's Trash has had to turn away students when all 374 seats in Miller Theater are filled.

"It's the closest thing to being in a rock band, in the theater world," Hawk says of improv. "There's an immediacy to it. There's a danger to it."

When something is funny, it is so funny. Just as it happened, it could have not happened, right?

Everything can be anything. But pauses feel longer because when will they end?

What if no one laughs?

The next joke brings laughter that shakes shoulders with relief.

• • •

In the early morning hours of May 21, days after Eckerd's graduation ceremony last spring, Jake Huzenis jumped from a Chicago high-rise. He was 25.

When Jake had been a student he had been fine, Hawk remembers. Happy, even.

But he started to change in his last semester at Eckerd, in the spring of 2010. The insular, hyper-structured community that makes Eckerd and most colleges the fodder of jokes is also what makes students feel safe, says Hawk. "In college, everything was laid out for him."

When he thought about the future and what his plans should be after college, the choices were unlimited. The real world is like improv, in that way. Everything is on the table. You can choose to be whatever you want.

But unlike improv, there's no primal rule to agree.

The skit doesn't end.

People negate every day.

• • •

At their last practice before Chicago, Thomas Ogg arrives two minutes late, setting down his skateboard and saying, "I almost just killed an elderly woman."

The rest of the group is strewn around the classroom waiting to get started, by and large handsome, lanky kids with beards they'll eventually figure out.

They kick things off with the last text message one of them received — "It's Perry the Platypus. He has a tail, and everything!" — and junior Jamie Auer and senior Chris Higgins jump in.

Suddenly Auer is a whiny king whose niece, sophomore Andrea Petruccelli, rejects the platypus he had personal servant Higgins retrieve from a pond for her birthday. "It's tough. It's so hard to make your niece happy," Auer says, stroking the platypus in his lap as one might do with a cat.

People can have any name in improv, so they are named Leroy, Sheriff O'Mackey and Jebediah Schmiffley. They live in Alabastertopia McDauntingville (a two-person monarchy in Texas, naturally).

The practice goes well. But how do you practice for a spontaneous thing?

There are some simple strategies, skills you can sharpen, Fella says. You have to quickly establish the who, what and where.

You want to start with characters who have known each other for some time.

Don't ask too many questions.

Most of all, you want to start mid-scene.

"Otherwise you just get talking heads, people having a conversation about the past. It's boring."

Do not be boring.

Stay in the present, he says. You'll make it out okay.

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