A stage, a microphone, and an eager audience is all that is needed for improv and stand-up. That picture may seem scary for some but for impromptu actors, it is their definition of excitement.
At Ithaca College, while there are several main stage and other popular theatrical productions, the real performance gems can arguably be found hidden in the free performing groups and clubs on campus. And while these stand up, improv, and open mic routines are so laid-back and fun, one of the more serious questions, often overlooked, is why do these performers do what they do?
Tim Heintz is co-president with Jake Winslow of Ithaca College’s main improv comedy group on campus, Acahti Players. He said that the group was initiated about ten years ago by Dillingham theater school students who had an interest in the idea of an improv group. Members of the club have gone on to participate in improv groups and performance outside of the college, but Heintz said it is overall “…just a group of people who really enjoy playing pretend.”
Heintz, a senior, said his love for improv came from “…its infinite possibilities night in and night out…you never know what will happen” which is also a reason it attracts the audiences that it does. When watching an improv show, there is confusion and questioning, but also excitement. The scenes often don’t make organizational sense, which can be the most humorous part of a performance along with the actor’s depiction, style and interpretation.
In rehearsals that take place twice a week, the Acahti Players focus their practice time on keeping the fundamentals and various forms of improv current and well-rehearsed. With such an impromptu performing art, rehearsals aren’t usually expected but Heintz says that “These practices are important because it keeps our energy up before shows, and helps create chemistry between the members,” which is always important due to the amount of random interaction actors encounter while on stage.
Open mic performances have the same energy and free standing performances as an improv show, but there are certain aspects to the environment that are different both for the performers and the audience. Unlike improv, there is a level of structure and preparedness that goes into an open mic show. Singers and instrumentalists almost always have a setlist of songs they’ve practiced and are prepared to play. While it may be loose and up for interpretation, it’s still an important part of the show.
Clara Maurer is a freshman at the Berklee College of Music as well as an experienced songwriter and performer. She started performing at open mics only a few years ago at age 16, but has participated and helped organize many similar events since then. She said that “I really started to develop as an artist when I finally put myself out there and shared the work I created.”
Whether performing musically, or using open mic opportunities to express other talents, the environment encourages artists and performers to reveal their ideas and expressions to a non-judgemental audience. Maurer said that what is most enjoyable to her about performing is “…the connection you can have with your audience”.
The feedback given is always a confidence boost for new or experienced performers, as well as the dedication and enjoyment shown on an open mic stage which is often much more “…appreciated and embraced freely” according to Maurer.
For the audience, hearing shared lyrics, skits, and instrumental talent on stage is a relatable and exciting experience. Maurer said, “For the most part, the audience is just looking for raw expression and passion.” A sense of relation between performer and audience member is an important and unique part of the open mic environment and experience.
Another form of free performance is spoken poetry, also known as “slam poetry.” This unique form of self-expression can be found in a group at Ithaca College called Spit That where Mary Oliver is president. The organization was originally started by an Ithaca College student to give participants a free and safe space to express their opinions. The club is still a place where candor and bluntness is encouraged by its members and officers; Oliver said that in meetings “General body members and myself are often more honest in that room than we are with any part of our lives.”
Those who participate aren’t the only ones who benefit from the experience. Audience members often enjoy the honesty of spoken poetry as well because of the powerful energy present when watching a performer “…who is unafraid to be vulnerable like spoken word poets must be.” said Oliver.
While there is little overall preparation for the shows that Spit That hosts, the performers are always prepared with the poems they choose to perform due to the help and constructive criticism the group gives one another. One of the most intriguing things about spoken poetry is that it is able to give silenced, or ignored issues, a needed voice. Oliver said she is thankful for the organization’s existence, not only for all it has done for her, but because “it makes the rough times here at IC much more manageable.”
Madison Barlow is a freshman integrated marketing communications major who prefers her lights lime-colored. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org