The Comedy Collective
There’s one in every comedy crowd—a drunk idiot inappropriately shouting random things to the performers. During one winter evening of improv from the Comedy Collective at the Pioneer Underground, that drunk idiot was sitting behind me.
“What’s that sound?” said actor Stacy Johnson, embarking on a scene but managing to address the drunk elephant in the room.
“Oh, that’s just my ringtone,” responded fellow player Ian Sorensen, unfazed but looking pointedly at the audience member. “Let me just mute that.” Amid laughter, Mr. Obnoxious had been effectively, but comedically, shut down.
It’s a move only seasoned improv actors can make. But the Comedy Collective, a troupe formed a year ago by a team of local comedic talents, can handle anything thrown at them—literally and figuratively.
The first Friday of each month at the Pioneer Underground, the troupe offers up a sidesplitting two hours of improvisational games involving some audience prompts and interaction, musical accompaniment and a complete willingness to go anywhere the scene may lead. Upon drawing words and names from a hat (or receiving enthusiastic shouts from audience members), these adept improv actors may be forced on the spot to rap about underwater basket weaving (a golden oldie dredged up by audiences at every show), belt out a gospel tune about squirrels or speak in Australian accents.
Brought together by local writer, director and filmmaker Emily Skyle, whose background includes a decade with renowned sketch comedy teams Second City and iO, the Collective includes Ian Sorensen, local actor and morning radio DJ with 100.1 The X; Stacy Johnson, longtime local improv and theater actor; Derek Sonderfan, a Washoe County employee by day and improv player and musician by night; and a handful of other locally recognizable comedic and acting talents. At any given show, the crew may number anywhere from five to 10.
In an interview over glasses of wine and involving lots of laughs, Johnson, Sorensen, Sonderfan and Skyle admit none of them received any “official” improv training. Rather they fell into it in their individual searches for a creative outlet. Skyle herself admits to being “wrongfully arrogant” when she arrived at a Second City audition. The four all share an important trait: confidence to try this thing that would scare the hell out of most people.
“There’s this terrifying, fabulous adrenaline, and when you kill at improv, and you know it came from absolutely nowhere and all these people are laughing … to me, that is more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done,” Skyle said.
Recalling her first time, Johnson explained she was asked last minute to fill in for a friend who had to bail out of a show. “She was like, ‘Hey, you’re funny, you should do this.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and it was the most terrifying thing in the entire world. But the gratification was magical, like, ‘Wow, anything I put out there, these people are going to pick up. They’ve got my back.'”
Good improv, they explained, abides by the sacred rule of “Yes, and.”
“It’s the ultimate form of respect and acknowledgment and collaboration,” Skyle said. “So if Ian comes out and says, “Mom, I got my driver’s license!” my job is to accept that he’s my son because he called me Mom; I am to accept he is 16 years old, and I need to accept that he just got his driver’s license. I’m going to ‘Yes, and’ that by accepting what he says, adding detail and starting a scene. … So, in improv, if I do something wrong, everyone around me will make it a gift and make it look intentional, and it turns into magic. The second you trust, it’s no longer terrifying; in fact, it’s incredibly safe, safer than any other kind of performance.”
Not that they pull any punches or would hesitate to throw each other (playfully) under the bus—like, say, forcing Skyle, who admittedly can’t do an accent, to take on four of them, or abusing Sorensen’s knack for impressions by insisting he play the entire cast of Friends. But they know from their collective wealth of experiences that what they have is golden.
“I’ve been part of four improv troupes, and by far is the most talented group of people I’ve worked with,” Sonderfan said. “And bad improv? If you go to a bad improv show, it’ll be the longest two hours of your life.”
Sorensen cut in, “And that’s if the show’s a half hour."