On stage at Yorktown High School’s auditorium, Jon Nardolilli is hunched over on all fours, flailing his arms as he imitates a spider. Another student steps onto a chair and starts screaming at the creeping arachnid below.
“Don’t be so obvious with it,” said Jim Doyle, a comedian with the Comedy Sportz improv group, from across the stage. “Make something happen with the scene. Be spontaneous.”
Someone in the audience yells “ding,” and the skit comes to an abrupt end.
Nardolilli was one of twenty Yorktown students who attended the final installment of an improv comedy workshop last week, part of a collaboration between Yorktown’s theatre arts department and The Comedy Spot, a comedy theater located near Ballston Mall.
Doyle coached the rambunctious performers on the nuances of improvisational humor, providing detailed feedback and helping them hone their comedic skills.
“The scenic work has been really good,” said Doyle, who has been working for three years with Comedy Sportz, which performs every Friday and Saturday at The Comedy Spot. “They’ve been picking up my directions and incorporating the notes I gave them. The students have really held their own.”
For the past eleven years Yorktown has been home to the 28th Street Improv Troupe, a student-run organization with 10-15 members. Suzanne Gesin, whose son Adam is part of the group, thought it would be beneficial for the students to be mentored by an experienced comedian before this fall’s auditions.
Parents, school officials and representatives of The Comedy Spot were able to arrange a partnership this summer that would benefit all parties. While students are given the opportunity to work with a veteran performer, The Comedy Spot is able to increase its visibility in the community and can promote its shows to teenagers, a crucial demographic.
“This is the reason my son gets up in the morning and comes to school,” said Gesin, who is involved in the Theatre Arts Parents organization. “This gives the kids in the troupe additional training and is a way to make a good connection to a local professional group.”
THE COMEDY SPORTZ troupe will perform at a fund-raiser on Oct. 21 to inaugurate Yorktown’s new Black Box Theatre. In return for the hands-on lessons, Yorktown students will be ushers for upcoming shows at The Comedy Spot.
The 28th Street group performs once a month at Arlington schools and occasionally stages private events. Carol Cady, the head of Yorktown’s theatre arts program said she was eager to bring in seasoned professionals to improve students’ improvisational skills and bolster their confidence.
“They needed exposure to professionals in the field to get a sense of whether this is something they want to pursue,” Cadby said.
The workshops each began with simple warm-up games, such as the “mirror exercise,” where two people face each other and mimic their partners’ movements.
A sizable portion of the lessons are devoted to developing scene work, the lifeblood of improv comedians. Someone in the audience shouts out a subject, like “spiders” or “gardening,” and groups of two to four students instantaneously cultivate a dialogue focusing on the topic.
After the conclusion of a routine, Doyle instructed the students on what information they could have included, where they should have situated themselves on stage and when additional characters could have entered the scene.
“As unprepared as improv is, there’s a lot of theory behind it,” said Hugh Trimble, a Yorktown senior and vice-president of the 28th Street troupe. “You have to know how to relate to other people, figure out where to stand and work at establishing a scene.”
In improv routines, one of the key elements is keeping a scene from faltering and knowing when to take it in a new direction if it becomes stale.
Doyle taught the students several tricks to inject energy into a dying bit. One is to incorporate a new motion or an imaginary object into the scene. Nardolilli, a Yorktown junior, likes using a technique Doyle taught in an earlier class, called “It’s Tuesday.”
“If a scene is stalling, you can say ‘It’s Tuesday.’” he said. “This puts the focus on the other person who can go off on that.”
MANY OF THE participants were comedy novices. Some were freshman, attending because they thought it would be fun to try a new activity, while others were serious theater students eager to attempt the lighter side of the trade.
People do not need to be innate comedians to succeed at improv, Doyle said. All that's required to carry out a scene is good communication with fellow performers and a fearless attitude.
For Adam Williams, the president of the 28th Street group, improvisational comedy comes naturally. “I thrive on making other people laugh,” the Yorktown senior said. Trimble, on the other hand, has always been a dedicated thespian and it has taken him time to warm to the details of spontaneous humor.
“Comedy has been a huge challenge for me.” Trimble said. “I like roles driven by anger or passion. This is extremely hard.”
Working with the students and their unhindered imaginations has provided Doyle with a renewed enthusiasm for his craft. He hopes the lessons students learn on stage will be implemented in their everyday lives.
“Here we are doing team building and improving their communication skills,” Doyle said. “They are learning to think on their feet and take risks.”