On the fly
“You’re late. My house already burned down,” says Tim Dufrisne, nonchalantly.
“I was doing … something else,” responds Michael Lewis.
“Doing something else? Because of you, my house …”
“I was doing your wife.”
Dufrisne and Lewis are members of the Empire Improv troupe. The above exchange is the kind of thing that these guys can toss off casually over a cup of coffee. Lewis is the founder and director of the troupe. He studied improv in Los Angeles, including a stint with the prestigious iO West, and when he came to Northern Nevada pursuing his second passion, skiing, he founded Empire Improv to nurture a scene here.
The group stresses that improv is vastly different from stand-up comedy and traditional forms of theater.
“I’ve done stand-up,” says Ben Craig, another member of the troupe, “And you can’t write enough to stay fresh. Once I’d perform a routine, I wouldn’t want to do it again. This is always brand new.”
Craig, Dufrisne and Lewis form the core of Empire Improv, an ensemble group called Hostel Greetings. This month, on Jan. 23, the group celebrates its one-year anniversary with a performance at Studio on 4th, 432 E. Fourth St.
Unlike many comedians, who often strain to be funny even in their day-to-day conversations, these guys are serious-minded craftsmen. They seem to have more in common with writers than actors. They practice and train regularly.
“I like to use team sports analogies,” says Lewis. “It’s like in basketball—just because you don’t know what’s going to happen in a given game, doesn’t mean you’re not going to practice your layups.”
The troupe starts out performances with games, like freeze-tag, that are probably familiar to anyone who ever took a high school drama class. This serves to warm up both the performers and the audience. Then, the troupe will solicit the audience for an idea for a monologue. This subsequent monologue is usually taken from a true experience of one of the performers—and the monologue will serve as a loose reference point and inspiration for the three improvised scenes that will follow.
When, the performance goes well, these scenes will work together forming connections to the monologue, and even making a narrative arc and cohesive form. It’s like the troupe is writing a play as it is performed.
The performance this month will also feature three new improvisers, students from Lewis’ training workshops. According to Lewis, a primary function of Empire Improv is developing talent. Perspective improvisers might want to visit empireimprov.com to find more information about workshops.
The name of the group, Empire Improv, came from Lewis—"I’m a big Star Wars dork,” he says—but Hostel Greetings, the name of the core performing ensemble, was one of those names that just sort of stuck.
“The name is always the least important thing that you spend the most time on,” says Craig.
“This is an art form based on agreement,” says Dufrisne. “But no one could agree on the name.”
It is an art form based on agreement—and accepting the unplanned responses of fellow performers.
“A lot of it is counterintuitive—it works best when you don’t self-edit, don’t plan and don’t think,” says Lewis. “It’s like that scene where Obi-Wan tells Luke, ‘Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.'”