Holidays in Washington: Improv group looks for humor in the season

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Greer Smith, Mark Chalfant, Bryan Jackson, Elaine Colwell, Matt Berman and Erica Johnson perform as iMusical cast members. (photo courtesy of Washington Improv Theater)

Throughout the holiday season, Washington Improv Theater’s “Seasonal Disorder” performances are keeping audience members on their feet with a brand-new show every night, each offering comedy, catchy tunes and unexpected plot twists.

People are drawn into the unpredictability of the improv experience, said theater spokesperson Dan Miller. With a new show every night and a variety of ensembles at different performances, the seasonal production offers audience members a unique theater experience to witness the show being created as it is performed.

The humor stems from the unpredictability of the performance and the authenticity of the improvisers’ reactions to a scene, said Matt Berman, one of the performers in iMusical, a group that improvises a musical for every performance.

“I think there’s something inherently funny about discovering something unexpected. And we’re discovering it at the same time that the audience is,” Berman said.

For iMusical, director and keyboard accompanist Travis Charles Ploeger, along with nine other improvisers, came up with catchy songs and unexpected scenarios to create the story. One show last week centered around a 250-year curse in a mansion on a hill, blood sacrifices and a man raising a dozen baby herons to atone for once killing a bird.

Ploeger said he plays music that he thinks fits the overall tone of the scene, and the actors jump in with the lyrics. Then the music adjusts as necessary to complement the scene that the improvisers create and change the tone.

Though there is a new show every performance, the group explained that there is a bare-bones structure that improv groups generally stick to. For iMusical, they usually try to have a group-oriented song toward the end of the show to create a climax as if it were a rehearsed musical.

The show’s artistic director, Mark Chalfant, who is also a performer in iMusical, added that improv is a more engaging experience than any type of theater that is rehearsed. The audience develops a sense of “ownership” over the performance, as the improvisers often respond to what the audience is enjoying and focusing on.

“You’re really sort of present in that moment of creation,” Chalfant said. “You’re really just seeing these choices crackle and come together to make the recipe for what’s happening.”

Another improv performance at the seasonal show featured a trio called Mr. Sand Man, a three-person group all dressed in matching striped pajamas. On a recent night, they asked audience members how they celebrate the holidays and used the answers as cues for their performance.

The trio came up with a hilarious depiction of what you would expect from a child’s nightmare, including a mom playing favorites between her two sons, an evil gingerbread man and the repetitive fear of waking up from a bad dream only to find that you are still in yet another nightmare. The dreamlike performance layered ominous background music with characters screaming and bickering like children, portraying the incoherent fears of a child stuck in a light-hearted nightmare.

The next ensemble to perform, King Bee, celebrated its last performance with improviser Rob Miller before his move to his hometown of Chicago. With most of the performers wearing flannel shirts and “Rob” name tags, the group then stood around Miller and interviewed him about his day as inspiration for the performance.

At one point, Miller said he and his roommate had finally turned the heat on in their apartment, after several months of milking the heat from their neighbors through the walls. The description led the performers to begin the show by figuratively milking a set of udders coming out of the ceiling.

The show included a scene where the cast members sought to convince the real Miller not to leave, by enticing him with food trucks and the entire Cubs team. They even blocked his exit from the stage — something that Miller called “real meta” during the performance.

“Seasonal Disorder,” the umbrella for the theater’s improv performances taking place in December, began on Nov. 30 and will continue through Dec. 31. Tickets cost $12 in advance or $15 at the door.