Black Squirrel Improv Troupe Creates Spontaneous Laughter


In an unsuspecting corner of the Kent Student Center at 6:30 p.m., one can hear loud chants coming from one of the conference rooms. The yelling and laughter that bleeds into the hallway belongs to the Black Squirrel Improv Troupe. From the outside, the noises seem foreign, perhaps even barbaric. Inside, though, are a group of students trying to bring more humor to Kent State.

By performing free two-hour shows each month in the KIVA, members of the Black Squirrel Improv Troupe work to brighten Kent State with improvisational comedy.

Members of Black Squirrel Improv play “The Dating Game” at their performance Nov. 17 in the KIVA. In this game, members pretend to be contestants on a game show, adopting personas based on audience suggestions.

Black Squirrel Improv Troupe’s last show was Nov. 17. Dozens of people, both students and older adults, attended the performance. The two hour show consisted of a rapid-fire pace of games and jokes.

To prepare for these shows, the troupe holds two-hour practices every Tuesday and Thursday where members hone their abilities and responses.

P.J. Leyden, president of Black Squirrel Improv Troupe, said that practices are something he looks forward to during the week. “You can always look forward to, ‘Oh man, I’ve got two hours of improv tonight, go ahead and stress me out all you want.’ Because I’m going to be able to make jokes with my friends.”

Each game consists of a set of instructions that puts pressure on the actors’ humor skills and reactions. Performers must act out a scene while additionally meeting the game’s requirements, such as making a member say a specific phrase.

The game that opens the show requires each member to play off each other in an imaginary phone conversation. Another forces them to construct every sentence with a set number of words. In another, two members pretend to watch a movie while the others must act it out according to the narration.

The troupe practices in the Kent Student Center Thursday, Nov. 16. In this game, the two members pretending to watch a movie must dictate the often ridiculous actions of the other performers.

During the intermission, audience members are invited to write random phrases on slips of paper. In the second half, some games incorporate the slips as lines of dialogue that shift the direction of the scene. A scene can easily become derailed when a character reveals they are 85 years old or asks the other if they play “Minecraft.”

In the first game following intermission, scenes change as members read lines written by the audience. “There’s something I want to say to you… I’m actually 85 years old.”

For the final segment, the entire troupe performs long-form improv. Starting with a single idea, the performance expands into a loosely related set of hilarious and irreverent scenes. “It isn’t really a game, it’s kind of just a scene that keeps going, it’s very fluid,” said Jane Fitz, a freshman member.

Fitz happened to live two doors away from Leyden, which is how she was brought to auditions at the beginning of the year. Ever since, she is an enthusiastic member.

At the end of each show, the troupe performs extended long-form. Here, member Paul Appleby (sitting) tries to win the heart of a noble’s daughter by completing three ridiculous trials.

Members of the troupe encouraged anyone interested to go to auditions, which are held annually. “You just play a bunch of games, and you meet a lot of really cool people,” Fitz said. She said close to 80 people tried out this year for a group that usually has 10 to 12 performers.

“There’s more paperwork than I thought there would be for a group that does everything on the spot,” Leyden said of his position as president. Scheduling events and planning are among his responsibilities. He began as a member in his freshman year, then did advertisements for the group the next year. This year, he was voted into the presidency.

In this game, three members are given the identity of well-known fictional characters from the audience. They attend a party held by a fourth performer, who must guess the characters based on each’s mannerisms.

Improv is not free of obstacles. “The only thing you have to remember is trying your best not to offend anyone, and that’s getting harder,” Leyden said. One of Leyden’s characters is a foul-mouthed, elderly Scottish man. The November performance also had cracks at rednecks and feminism, but the audience seemed to enjoy the jokes.

The troupe will host the Upright Citizens Brigade Dec. 8 in place of their normal show. The New York-based comedy group’s founders include Amy Poehler and Ian Roberts. Black Squirrel Improv Troupe will perform a 15-minute opening for the guest group, who will do the rest of the free show.

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With the pressures of academic life, especially close to finals, students can feel powerful stress. Using comedy as a vehicle, the Black Squirrel Improv Troupe attempts to alleviate that pressure. As the old adage goes, “laughter is the best medicine.”

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