Most of us use improvisation in our daily lives — bumbling over excuses for why we didn’t finish that reading, frantically scribbling a nonsensical answer on a midterm question you know nothing about. But rarely is it fun or entertaining for anyone involved (except for that ping of Schadenfreude when the misfortune isn’t happening to you).
The Atlas Improv Showcase, however, turns improvisation into a much more lighthearted and enjoyable affair in the company’s weekly Saturday night comedy performances at the Electric Earth Café.
“The Showcase is an effort to get everybody in the company to explore aspects of improvisation and performance that they’re interested in, making them more invested in the art form and getting there as performers,” Atlas Improv Artistic Director Neil Pohl said.
Every Saturday night, three of the company’s five teams perform. Each team presents a different form of improvisation in a 20-30 minute set: The sketch team, which is a series of short vignettes; the montage team, which must compose a sketch from various sources; the two-person team, where each actor embodies a character and then switches roles; the blog team, where someone reads a random blog passage and actors create a story around it; and the La Ronde team, a character-based improvisation.From there, some teams perform games that can include anything from only acting out random lines from a play to a complex game of charades.
“A week ago, someone [in the audience] suggested the word ‘homozygous’ to make performers pantomime,” Pohl said. “We were able to get the guesser to guess it by pantomiming a zygote successfully.”
As a performer with the group for 10 years — when Atlas was formerly Comedy Sportz Madison — Pohl said the best improvisers are good storytellers, character creators and quick-witted people. They must also have their entertainment-related priorities in order.
“Performers need to be able to perform for themselves — that’s really the only people they should be concerned with while they’re performing… If the performer is looking to impress themselves, there’s no doubt they’ll impress the audience,” he said.
Erin Kay Van Pay, performer in the montage team and captain of the sketch team, spent last semester studying at the renowned Chicago-based improv troupe Second City and brought back some comedy expertise. A junior at UW with majors in film and creative writing, she is the youngest member of the company.
Van Pay said her classes in comedy studies affirmed her confidence in performing and enabled her to bring knowledge about sketch form to Atlas.
“Atlas and Second City are two great institutions,” she said. “They each have their own focus, and I think it’s really cool that improv and sketch don’t have to be just one school of thought; there are many different ways of doing things.”
And Atlas’ focus on narrative storytelling is one of its distinctive strengths.
“Atlas focuses on telling great stories, story arcs and making things complete, which audiences love. We try to insert that into short-form stuff, which makes us pretty unique,” Van Pay said. “A lot of short-form companies are just pretty joke-y and gimmicky, but Atlas tries to tell a story within the format of short-form games.”
Atlas Improv’s headquarters are currently at 416 W. Mifflin, which Madison’s City Planning Division has recently recommended to be demolished, making way for an apartment building. The project has prompted student protests in favor of preserving Madison culture.
“There’s not much anybody can do at this point,” Pohl said. “It is going to be tough on us…but we are confident that the move will be successful.”
Despite its relocation troubles, Atlas remains a good opportunity for a night of laughs. Van Pay said the showcase is a great alternative to stereotypical Saturday night festivities, and the company’s chemistry shines onstage.
“I don’t think enough people know about it or know what we can do for the audience,” she said. “Each time you come, it’s a unique experience.”
Atlas Improv Showcase is held every Saturday at 10 p.m. at the Electric Earth Café, 546 W. Washington Ave. Tickets ($3/students, $6/regular) can be purchased at the door or by calling 259-9999 for a reservation.