Theatre Cedar Rapids’ improv series takes audiences on a JOYRIDE

The improve group could even make "You have died of dysentery" funny! -- image via JOYRIDE
This improv group could even make “You have died of dysentery” funny! — image via JOYRIDE


Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Studio — Fri-Sun, Nov. 13-15

Theatre Cedar Rapids breaks new ground this week with its very first Studio Improv Series. Once the sole purview of the independent theater and college scenes, and dedicated companies like the Magnet Theatre and the IO, improvisational theatre has found an unlikely home at TCR (a “community theatre” in all the best meanings of the phrase) in large part because of the efforts of education director Zach Parker. The performances this weekend will mark the first public appearance of newly formed improv team JOYRIDE, directed by Parker.

This dream began a couple of years ago, with the establishment of a series of improv classes offered by the theatre. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have taken many levels of these classes, and I also auditioned for this team.) They have become an extremely popular part of the theatre’s education program, and are offered on a regular rotating basis (the next set of beginners’ classes kicks off Jan 6). Modeled closely after such improv companies as New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade, where Parker studied, the classes are a fun and freeing chance for community members to test their limits, as well as offering the foundation and groundwork helpful in building a performing team.

Improv is, at its core, about bravery. It’s storytelling without a safety net. It’s no surprise, then, that the team that Parker formed consists of some of the boldest performers in the area. JOYRIDE team members include Sarah Michels, Sara Johnson, Peggy Somerville, Madison Paxton, Zach Johnson, Craig Byers, Lovar Davis Kidd, and Nick Walters. Although the team was formally cast just prior to preparing for this show, many of the members have been rehearsing and performing together for a couple of years, now, through the TCR classes. There are familiar names here — improv fans will remember Michels from her time with local team Comics in Action, and Byers, Kidd, Walters, and both Johnsons have all been seen on local stages recently.

JOYRIDE will be performed through the Harold technique, meaning they will focus their shows around that particular long-form style. Although Parker notes that there will be “variations on the Harold, as well as experimentation on their own forms over their career together”. For audience members more familiar with short form games, the extended storytelling possibilities inherent in forms like the Harold are bound to surprise and delight. The Harold is a three-part structure, with three scenes in each section, which are revisited in order as the evening progresses (in summary: A1-B1-C1 (group game) A2-B2-C2 (group game) A3-B3-C3 (free for all)). It is this fantastic mix of spontaneity and intentional creativity that blurs the lines between theatre and comedy in a way that short-form never quite achieves.

This weekend’s Studio Improv Series is the first of two formally scheduled on Theatre Cedar Rapids’ 2015-16 season. JOYRIDE is expected to perform at both, with another additional team added to the spring showcase. It is also Parker’s hope that JOYRIDE will find other opportunities to perform as a team in the community, after this weekend has passed. Since the program’s inception, he has been reaching out to local businesses and other organizations who are interested in what improv has to offer. From workshops to private performances, the ways that improv comedy can benefit the community are endless.

“As we continue to cast improv teams and develop shows for them,” says Parker, “we will continue to see where this art form can go in this community. Right now, it’s the development stages and getting the community to understand the excitement of Improv. As the interest grows, the possibilities grow for Improv at TCR.”

JOYRIDE performs this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 13 and 14, at 7:30 p.m. at Theatre Cedar Rapids’ Grandon Studio, and on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.