News Column

Improv gets deep

June 6, 2014

By Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

June 06--Muh Grog Zoo

What: Muh Grog Zoo one-act improvised theater

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (June 6)

Where: Studio III, Broadway Center, 915 Broadway, Tacoma

Cost: Free with registration (online or at box office)

, Improv? Isn't that the comedy night where guys run around with silly voices and exaggerated gestures?

Actually, no -- or at least, not in Tacoma and Lakewood, where improv troupe Muh Grog Zoo (we'll get to the name later) has been quietly transforming the art form over the past few years into something deeper and more connected. Oh, and longer, too: one hour of serious theater, with a plot, developed characters and emotions that go way beyond humor.

So says Muh Grog Zoo co-founder Adam Utley: tall, lanky and entirely serious about this form of theater. Utley discovered improv (the art of acting without a script) when he was a theater student 10 years ago at Pacific Lutheran University; he participated for a while in Comedy Sports, the short-and-slick humorous type of improv that most people associate with the name, where teams of actors create short scenes based on audience suggestions and compete for audience votes.

But then the Wenatchee native discovered that if you take improv seriously -- creating longer scenarios without either the comedy or the competition -- you could engage an audience in a very different way. He developed an improv program at PLU in 2007, joined with three other like-minded actors (Paul Richter, Dylan Twiner and Sam Duchin) to form Muh Grog Zoo in 2010, and began performing regularly at local venues, including Lakewood Playhouse.

Utley's brought his improv sensibility to the rest of his work as a teaching artist and education/events associate for the Broadway Center, even presenting Muh Grog Zoo at Tacoma's recent TedX talks. He talked with The News Tribune about what makes long-form improv worth experiencing -- and what it feels like to do it.

Q: Why did you try long-form improv in the first place?

A: I've been doing improv for 10 years. (Early on) I was asked to be part of a group that did short-form comedy improv; that's how I initially got involved. Doing that, I kept thinking that there could be so much more storytelling, more human emotions and interaction. I realized that both my (theater) students and myself were yearning for that kind of connection. So we began Muh Grog Zoo.

Q: First of all, tell us about the name.

A: Well, there's a different story about that each time! At the beginning we each wrote down a one-syllable word on pieces of paper and turned them face-down. Then we mixed them up and randomly turned them over, reading out each syllable. And we got "Muh Grog Zoo." (Pronounced: Ma-grog-zoo.)

Q: So tell us how it's different from short-form comedy improv.

A: It's a one-act play with a story arc and characters you can actually connect to. We all play multiple characters during the performance. And it gets serious -- it's palpable that everyone's involved.

We start by introducing ourselves and the group, giving a disclaimer that we honor all emotions and we don't quite know what's going to come out of our mouths. (Editor's note: Muh Grog Zoo is recommended for mature audiences only.) Then we point at a random person in the audience and ask them for a word. That inspires the rest of the improvisation. We take the word and create well-rounded, layered characters that surprise the audience and ourselves.

Q: What happens if you get a very specific word -- like, say, a title: "The Importance of Being Earnest"? (Which isn't one word, but you know what I mean.)

A: We would think about the theme, or the importance of being earnest itself, or cucumber sandwiches even, and build a story on that. What we do doesn't have to be about the word, just inspired by it.

Q: What's the best word suggestion you've ever had?

A: It's difficult -- I love every show we do. But maybe my favorite word was "coffee." I started as a coffee expert sniffing beans and, based off my postures, the other players started to bring in voices in the coffee expert's head. It turned into the slow devolution of his sense of self and what he was actually doing.

Q: And being a four-man team, what do you do about female characters?

A: It's not a problem -- we play them all the time. Sometimes we even play each other's characters.

Q: Isn't that confusing for the audience?

A: Not at all. It's about the way we speak and hold our bodies. The audience loves that we do that; it means we're not falling into patterns, and it's more of an environment to play with.

Q: What about props?

A: We have no props, just some chairs.

Q: How long does it take you to wind down after a show?

A: Good question! Collectively, up to 21/2 hours. Because we go into this zone, and we get off stage and have no idea what just happened.

Q: Do you record any shows, just so you can see what did happen?

A: Actually, I'm attracted to the ephemerality of it. I love the fact that those stories will never be told again -- at least not by us. Also, theater doesn't usually translate well to film. That's why it's live theater. That's why it's so important.

Q: What's the hardest thing about long-form improv?

A: Well, it's not really hard, because of how much training we've done. It's like the best party you've ever been to -- you never feel lost, never feel like you messed up. But maybe the hardest thing is to trust that your spontaneity is the right answer. Most people are going to wonder why they said certain things, but it doesn't matter why -- the others will pick it up and make something of it. There's no wrong answer.


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