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Wednesday, August 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Funny or die: Would-be improv comedian tries out for Monkey Business Institute
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I'm one of those people who watch comedians and think, I could do that if I got up off my ass. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Nick Berard

The idea of the game is as simple as it is terrifying. In front of a room full of strangers, I'm presented with a key word and a musical style. Instrumental accompaniment will begin and, within seconds, I'm to improvise a song.

"Your theme is burglary," says Sarah Rogers, one of the owners of Monkey Business Institute. "And the style is swing."

She clicks something on her laptop and a short intro begins, during which I decide snapping my fingers like Dean Martin will set the proper mood and might open a creative crack, a tiny window of brilliance through which I will spot something that will allow me to craft a song on the spot. But my total lack of musical talent has been joined by an accompanying, but now significantly more urgent, lack of ideas for lyrics to a song about burglary set to a swing beat.

"I like to burgle," I attempt to croon as coolly as possible while continuing to snap like an idiot. "I like to burgle a LOT."

The rest of the verse is thankfully lost forever. My brain barely processes the words before they tumble out of my mouth, but I know that some are met with laughter, which is a powerful force in pushing me to continue this absurd exercise. The attempt itself is exhilarating, so any degree of success is gratifying. The experience leaves me goofy, grinning like a dope as I exchange fives and fist bumps with my peers who are also auditioning for Monkey Business Institute.

Some of them have been doing improv comedy in one form or another for years; others have a class or two under their belts. And a few, like me, are coming in cold, with no experience. Accommodating us is generous from a troupe as established as MBI, which boasts a cast that includes many of Madison's highest-profile actors, people like Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda of Blame Society/Chad Vader fame.

I've always enjoyed the rush of getting up in front of people to speak off the cuff or perform in a play. A lifelong loudmouth, I participated in theater and speech contests throughout my childhood, but haven't been on stage for anything other than the occasional emcee gig since performing in a community theater production of Harvey about 14 years ago. So I'm one of these people who sit on their couch watching standup comedians, short films and sketch shows thinking, I could maybe do that if I got off my ass.

Monkey Business' open audition seems to be a great opportunity to test myself, get an assessment and learn a little about making people laugh.

Monkey Business Institute was born out of ComedySportz, which performed in various State Street venues throughout the '90s. That's where MBI founders Brad Knight and Jason Stephens met.

"I started taking workshops in 2001, and Brad was my teacher," says Stephens. "We became good friends after I made it into the troupe. Brad left ComedySportz, and it disbanded soon thereafter. Some people split off to form Atlas Improv, so I grabbed Brad and asked if he wanted to start a troupe."

Knight and Stephens wanted to continue doing the short-form improv ComedySportz was famous for, focusing on fast-moving games, but they were also committed to being open to whatever came their way, taking a very improvisational approach to the business of improv comedy.

"We started as a two-person show," recalls Stephens. "I tried to learn how to play guitar so we could do music with the show. The very first show was at a barn for a charity trail ride. We were on a platform stage with cowboy hats on."

The pair moved on to shows at the former J.T. Whitney's on Whitney Way, focusing on building scenes with no costumes or props.

"We dressed up a lot more back then, with shirt and tie," says Stephens. "And we started doing some shows at the West Side Club as we added people into the group."

The troupe - co-owned by Knight, Stephens, Rogers and Jennifer Javornik - started performing weekly on Saturday nights in the basement of Glass Nickel Pizza on Atwood in 2008, adding a dinnertime family show in 2010. Last month, the company added a late-night two-person show at 10:30 called "Impromp2: Stripped."

"We have sort of tried to stay as open and yes-and-ish to the idea of wherever the needs go and our company takes us," says Knight. "When we first started out we were pretty serious about keeping it really small and tight. Everybody's there for every show. As we started to grow, we realized that wasn't feasible anymore."

Auditions are held in a weird, empty office located in an old service station on the west side. The smallish rectangular room is decorated with a few human anatomy posters and some autographed black-and-white photos like the kind you'd find on the wall of a comedy club. About a dozen members of the Monkey Business cast assemble as an audience with pens and paper.

One of the first games we play in auditions is known by a few names: Mr. Know-It-All, the Genius, World's Smartest Man. It's improv comedy at its most basic level. A group of improvisers lines up facing the audience. Someone in the audience asks a question (What's the best way to fix a flat tire?), and the line constructs an answer with each member contributing just one word at time, taking turns until you're done.

Comedy can happen quickly, but the trick is to practice improv's most important and basic principle: "yes, and." The idea is to take something your castmate has offered, accept it and add to it instead of denying it. With the Genius, each person in line is forced to listen and react to what he's been given. The best answers feature cast members literally saying the word "and" several times.

I feel pretty good about my contributions to the bit, but when I take my family to see MBI's early show a week later I discover that they often invite 8-year-olds up from the audience to take part in the Genius.

Shortly after starting the troupe, Knight began to develop a curriculum for improv classes. The classes allow MBI to develop its own cast, but there's more to it than just recruiting talent.

"I think it's sort of the benchmark of how serious and established the group is," says Knight, who teaches most of MBI's classes, divided into five levels. "If it's just a bunch of people screwing around and having fun, they're probably not going to have classes. But if you're more established and really believe in the art form, then you're going to be teaching."

Improv workshops have become about more than just actors learning the craft and expanding their skill sets. They fill a niche also occupied by rock climbing or ballroom dancing.

"It's all sorts of people who take our workshops, not just that crazy person kinda trying it out for fun," says Sheila Robertson, a Monkey Business veteran and ComedySportz alumna who teaches a musical improv class. "A lot of times it's people who know they need to get out of their comfort zone, who need to challenge themselves, who are shy. We've even had people take it who are in the dating world and feel they need to work on social skills."

Cast members also teach at corporate retreats and team-building sessions, a part of the business Stephens identifies as having a lot of potential for growth. And Robertson finds it to be as rewarding as performing, if not more so.

"Brad and I will joke, because I've probably done hundreds of them, and I'll sit in the car afterwards and be like, 'That's what I'm talking about! That's how improv can change the world!'" says Robertson. "These are not people who signed up for ha-ha funny classes. We're working with them on how to be present, be in the moment and listen to each other, and how to build off concepts. It's two or three hours with people who are like, 'Aw man, we didn't know we were going to be doing this!' to totally getting it and being better connected as humans. That sounds crazy, but it really happens, and it's really fun."

Earlier this spring, Knight was invited to present at a PechaKucha event, which is a gathering of creative professionals that began in Japan with designers looking for ways to spice up their presentations. It has grown into a global movement for creative professionals.

"More and more often, we're getting asked to do things that are connected to improv and use those skills, but aren't solid, pure improv," says Knight. "At PechaKucha, you have 20-slide presentations, and you get 20 seconds for each slide, and there's a theme. The theme of this one was Great Un-expectations. The other presenters gave me slides that I had never seen. Then I asked for a character, and then I presented."

Knight believes the skills developed in improv exercises are highly valued by innovative business owners who are looking to engage with their employees in a different way.

"One of the trends you see in business today is that these baby boomers are retiring, and younger people are coming into management who have grown up with this idea of collaboration and working together instead of one person standing there saying 'this is how you have to do it,'" he says. "We're seeing that these ideas of improv and collaboration are starting to spread in not just the corporate world, but in their personal lives too."

I've made a good enough impression at the audition to be invited back for a second round, also known as callbacks. There's more pressure, but also a ton of positive energy. My fellow auditioners are confident, and their enthusiasm is contagious. I'm charged with giving a one-minute speech about monsters in the character of a Southern gentleman, and it's a blast. You can't really go too far with a character like that, so I let it rip.

But up next is my improv nemesis: Two Lines. Like the song exercise, it's deceptively simple. You partner up with another improviser and perform a two-line sketch. The first actor initiates, trying to set up as much of the who, what and where of a story as possible, but also leaving something for the second person, who can ideally use "yes, and" to get a laugh.

This is the foundation of comedy: the setup and punch line. But we're cautioned to avoid trying to be funny and instead to listen and be in the moment. While waiting for my turn, I'm distracted by trying to come up with an idea. My instincts are to either do too much or too little. Being in the moment is rough when you're overly concerned about falling on your face.

My few turns fall flat, and I'm worried that my improv inexperience will reflect poorly on my partners.

Monkey Business now has over 20 cast members, many of whom are involved in other projects like Blame Society's "Beer & Board Games" video series. They have dabbled in standup comedy and local theatrical productions, but many return to improv because of its infinite variety.

"It's always different," says Robertson, who has also acted in community theater and musical comedies. "You learn these basic concepts that you can continue to work on, but every time you do a show it's different, and you don't want it to be the same. Like, oh yeah, I know that impersonation kills, but why be a hack and do it over and over again? So you keep challenging yourself."

Expanding the cast allows the veterans to keep their improv fresh by shaking up the lineup. Robertson says a large group means she often goes months between playing with the same combination of castmates. It also means they can spend time with their families and pursue other projects without having to do improv every week.

Part of the beauty of improv is that it's a skill that doesn't require constant rehearsal and sacrifice, and unlike other comedic forms such as standup, the performance doesn't rely on preparation. Stephens has tried both.

"Standup is hard for me because you have to memorize stuff and you have to time it out, and if something doesn't work, you have to go back and fix it," he says, adding that in an improv troupe you don't just share the burden of entertaining the audience, you share in the benefits as well.

"Standup all comes out of your own brain," he says. "You sit down and think it up, you write it, you try it out, you fix it, tweak it. And when you get up there, you present it as your work. If the audience loves it, then it's all on you. In improv, you're helping somebody else look good, and by means of that you're looking good."

We end callbacks with a game called 185. Improvisers line up, and a theme is introduced - for instance, bananas. The performers take turns telling a joke that goes like this: "185 bananas walk into a bar. The bartender says, 'Sorry, we don't serve bananas here.' So the bananas say.…"

Puns are common (What's the matter? Don't we a-peel to you?), but non sequiturs can also kill. After a theme runs its course, it's replaced by another. The game gets really fun when people step up without knowing what they're going to say. As with the other games, taking the leap can be thrilling. The faster the game moves, the more potential there is for chaos and absurdity, which you realize is sort of the point.

Making callbacks was unexpected, a thrill, but I'm disappointed when I learn I didn't make the cast. Knight, an avuncular coach, urges me to get some experience learning the methodology of improvisation and insists that I had a few proponents in the group. "We debated about you the most," he writes in an email. Being last cut is no small consolation and motivates me to sign up for a Level I class. It's a blast.

And besides, there's no failure in improv, as Knight likes to stress to students. There's always something you can pick up on. Then you turn it into something absurd.

Being in the moment is rough when you're overly concerned about falling on your face.

The faster the game moves, the more potential there is for chaos, which you realize is sort of the point.

There's always something you can pick up on. Then you turn it into something absurd.

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