Trying to recount Improv Jones skits is like trying to explain the dream you had last night. As the listener politely feigns interest in your every “and then,” you wonder if you’re forgetting something. And, you probably are. Because it’s impossible to recapture just what makes an improvisational comedy sketch so funny – especially one performed by a seasoned group like Jones. In the moment, as each scene builds from a relatively plausible premise to the height of absurdity, you simply get carried along. It’s a raucous and often hilarious ride, and it’s yours to take twice weekly for a mere $5 a ticket.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Improv Jones, the talented troupe that continues to tickle funny bones every Thursday and Saturday night here in Providence. Pop into 95 Empire at 10pm and get ready to giggle as, with a suggestion or two from the audience, the gang creates spontaneous, original and wonderfully wacky skits. Unlike stand-up comedy, improv is a team sport, with the performers collaborating to surprising effect. Jones leans towards long-form improv, which is scene-based, rather than the games seen on most televised shows. The results keep ‘em rolling in the aisles.
Founding member Mauro Hantman, a resident actor at Trinity Rep, notes, “I think regulars come back because they like our sense of humor, which is generally pretty irreverent and sometimes ridiculous. We don’t shy away from the absurd or surreal. We don’t rely on raunchy material, although we’ve certainly been known to dip a toe in from time to time. Mostly I think people just like watching us putting together something with substance and humor out of nothing. We’ve been doing it for a while, so we’re pretty good at it.”
Jones features a rotating, clever cast of local theater artists. The group recently added five apprentices to perform each Thursday with two of the six veteran “Mainstage” members. Saturday night shows highlight the Mainstagers, plus one or two of the newcomers. This month, Jones also welcomes 30 teams from near and far to the 9th Annual Providence Improv Fest (June 13–17). With Hantman as artistic director and fellow Joneser Melissa Bowler as producer, the fest promises great line-ups, including five other RI improv troupes.
If you’d like to polish up your own improvisational skills, take a tip from Bowler. She teaches classes and workshops on the subject at 95 Empire and with the RI Film Collaborative. She explains that a fundamental part of the craft is the concept – what one scene partner says or does, the other must accept and build upon. Good instructor that she is, she offers an example: if one performer says, “We’re going on a picnic today,” the other might respond, “Yes, and I brought sandwiches.” Bowler considers it a versatile principle, adding, “I use it in everyday life to make difficult people less difficult to deal with: ‘I don’t like your idea.’ ‘Yes, and I think it could stand some improvements.’ I believe it can cure everything: ‘Let’s end world hunger. ‘Yes, and I brought sandwiches.’ See? Done.”
After performing improv for 10 years, Bowler admits that she still gets nervous before shows. But, she finds the experience itself to be exhilarating. Hantman, a 20-year veteran, also gets a thrill. He reveals, “When a scene is going really well, and everyone’s on the same track, and you’re just spinning stuff out together, and you know just where the other peson’s going before they go there, and the audience is shocked by how in tune you are – that’s a great feeling.”
At a recent Thursday Jones show, the audience enjoyed no less than 26 short sketches. The evening’s entertainment covered a wide range of topics, from spiders and snuggling to A.A. sponsorship and interrogation. Attempts to explain just how those topics were integrated would surely be lost in translation. Suffice it to say, it was funny. Especially the spiders. So, here’s hoping for another 20 years to yuk it up with Improv Jones.