At first glance, improv looks fun and lighthearted. This is a lie. As a performer, you are required to practice, commit and dive into a show headfirst and without questions. Once you have fallen far enough, you will find yourself deep in the world of competitive improv, emerging as a character called “Sloopy” to win the 2017 College Improv Tournament’s Northwest Regional.
According to the UBC Improv team, this is exactly what happened to them on January 14, and now they are heading to Chicago for the National Championship on February 25. Thanks to the wonder of When2meet, I was able to talk to all six members of the team about their experiences.
“It was one full day of improv,” said Trang Nguyen about the Regional. Throughout most of the day, there were three time slots to accommodate 11 teams in the preliminary round. Three winners and a wild card team were then chosen by the same panel of judges for the final round.
“We went on at 11:30 that night to perform in the finale and it was probably the latest that we have ever performed,” said Nguyen. “Maybe running on excess energy worked toward our advantage.”
Upon more reflection, what likely benefited UBC was their narrative-oriented style, which contrasted with the predominantly stand-up vibe of American teams from the Northwest region. According to Jesse Rea, it was also within the team’s goal to “find a balance between having crazy, entertaining moments as well as a sincere storyline on stage.”
This was how Sloopy, a wild alien character, was born into a story about love and family. According to Jake Kelava, it was “an instant legend” among the competitors.
“Sloopy is an example of a hilarious and crazy character who is also well-rounded and grounded in something quite sweet,” said Jordan Johnston. “This set the tone for the second set too — the weird and the personal.”
Having personally been to some UBC Improv shows before, it became clear that this is the norm for how characters are constructed in their longforms.
“The way it works is that we have a framework for the narrative, and in terms of actually building one, we have the five narrative elements — setting, characters, conflict, stakes and solution — at the back of our minds,” said Brad Burega. “In terms of practicing for it, I liken it to practicing for basketball. You have plays in your mind so you know the elements that go into a game, but as it happens, it’s all coming up spontaneously.”
While this structure looks simple on paper, it’s elevated by UBC Improv in practice through the chemistry and balance between the team’s members, which was quite evident from their longform performance in last week’s Improv After Hours.
Most visible on stage was Sophia Larney, who made her character of the old, senile king burst into life through vivid facial expressions, body language and voice. In contrast, Kelava and Burega assumed the more stoic supporting roles which both advanced the plot and added details that created that extra spark. Rea, Johnston and Nguyen’s complex characters situated in the middle as a love triangle, and formed the story’s main narrative arc.
In true UBC Improv fashion, all these characters weaved their personalities and desires around each other to form a believable world, finding their own crazy moments to shine and ultimately arrived at a sweet ending (Rea’s stable boy pulling a stripper pole out of a rock a la King Arthur to revive Nguyen’s castle wench from a deadly potion).
Moving forward, the team is ramping up their practices in preparation for the national competition.
“We want to continue to just enjoy ourselves on stage and in the tournament because usually the best scene comes when you’re just genuinely having fun instead of constantly thinking about what needs to happen in the scene,” said Burega. “It was definitely something we tried to do at Regional and it helped us succeed, so going into National, we will still be considering that.”
For more improv, UBC Improv is hosting an Improv Goes to Chicago Show on February 16 as a fundraiser for the trip. Later on, from March 22 to 25, there is also Impulse, which is an improv festival that features international groups.