Author: Cory Lomberg
A performance by Fantastiprov, Occidental’s improv comedy troupe, gives little indication of who the individual cast members actually are. Instead, the audience comes to know members as couples who get married inside a beached whale or on the deck of a public pool; they cut off each other’s hands and glue them onto their asses. Every Sunday and Wednesday night, the crew meets up to practice making the student body laugh, even if it means stepping on live mouse traps (just ask junior Josh Harmon). The Occidental Weekly talked with cast members offstage to report that, one-on-one, they’re still funny.
According to Camille Wyss (sophomore), her decision to audition for Fantastiprov was aided by a fair amount of coercion from her former roommate and cast member Kylie Brakeman (sophomore). Even so, Wyss has no regrets about her recruitment. Law school bound, she sees improv as a release from her daily academic routine.
Wyss cites the troupe’s guessing games as some of her favorites. Break up, for example, is one game of the guessing genre that asks the audience to come up with three reasons for a break up: what happened on the couple’s first date, what happened when one partner met the other’s parents and what supposedly happened the night before. Two improvisors in the scene hear the audience’s suggestions; one is responsible for acting them out as the other watches. A third participant steps out while the reasons are decided upon and then returns to try to guess them based on their fellow improvisor’s charades.
The nature of the game depends on the audience’s suggestions. Typically, the cast expects them to be much easier than those they assign to one another during rehearsals.
“During shows, when we ask for a person, we always get Veitch,” Wyss said. “But last week, one of the people’s suggestions [in practice] was ‘Joseph Stalin the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.’ I think the guesser ultimately guessed ‘Hipster Joseph Stalin’ or, no, ‘Quirky Joseph Stalin,’ so she got really close.”
When Declan Meagher (senior) joined Fantastiprov at the end of his first year, he was one of five cast members and the only male. Over the past two years, Meagher is proud to have watched the troupe diversify in terms of gender, class, major and background.
“We have gotten some backlash: ‘Why do you have so many guys in the group? Why are there so many white, blonde dudes?’” Meagher said. “But we really try to take people who will fit the group, who have the talent regardless of what their major is, regardless of what their background is.”
Whereas Fantastiprov was once a club essentially organized by and for theater majors, Meagher says now only a third of the members plan to major in the department.
He is one of those members. Meagher recalls first wanting to pursue an acting career when he was 3 years old, while watching Disney’s “The Lion King.” Back home in Baltimore, he went to his first theater camp at the age of 10 and continued to perform in middle school, high school and at Occidental. Last semester, Meagher directed his own production — aptly entitled “[title of show]“ — as his senior comprehensive project. After graduation, he plans to put his improv and theater training to use by auditioning for roles in LA.
Fantastiprov is amongst a few different campus organizations competing for Elliot Davis’ (first year) attention. After having been on campus for only a semester, the first year secured a role in the upcoming play, “Measure For Measure,” landed a spot on the swim team, set aside time for Dance Production, decided to rush the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity and, most importantly, honed his improv skills.
Aside from a brief workshop in his high school drama class, Davis had no improv experience prior to auditioning for the team (he looks to “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” star Colin Mochrie as a primary source of comedic inspiration). Returning members of the troupe didn’t hesitate to help this Philadelphia native learn the rules and restrictions of each game and of improv as an art form in itself.
“You become a member of the group from the start,” Davis said. “You’re never seen as an underling.”
After transferring from St. John’s University in New York, Josh Harmon (junior) found that he had missed the preliminary theater auditions for Occidental’s fall production. Seeking an outlet for his passion for musical theater, Harmon discovered two separate extracurriculars on campus: Glee Club and Fantastiprov. Despite an initial lack of improv experience, it didn’t take long for Harmon to get comfortable within the comedy troupe.
“It’s become my favorite form of acting,” Harmon said. “You can do whatever you want when you’re not tied to a specific character.”
This semester, Harmon is studying abroad at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. While there, he’s unsure if he will get the opportunity to participate in acting and improv programs. He plans to return to Fantastiprov next fall and continue sharpening his improv skills through games like Countdown, where the pace and panic gradually increase. Any game involving movement is of interest to Harmon — even Mousetraps, where the fear of pain tends to outweigh the fun. During Fantastiprov’s X-Rated show last spring, the game required him to perform a scene blindfolded and surrounded by live mouse traps in Choi Auditorium. The Occidental Weekly commends his bravery.
Miriam Hamburger’s (junior) musical theater background has made for a smooth transition into the less melodic world of improvisation. First introduced to theater through a children’s opera in Boston, Hamburger went on to perform in musical theater productions at the high school level. However, her experience with Occidental’s theater department led Hamburger to switch over to improv, trading scripts and songs for Fantastiprov’s joke-telling game entitled Pick-Up Lines, in which the troupe fires flirty one-liners to a lucky audience volunteer.
“I found the performance arts [at Occidental] really bureaucratic and kind of hard to get into if you’re not a theater major,” Hamburger said. “Improv has become a really great outlet.”
Outside of Keck Theater, Hamburger is a cartoonist for The Occidental Weekly and a member of the Alpha Lamba Phi Alpha sorority. Though comedy holds little connection with her religious studies major, it’s not something she plans on giving up anytime soon.
“I definitely still want to be funny after school,” Hamburger said. “I don’t want to stop being a joy to talk to.”
Patrick Walsh’s (senior) participation in Fantastiprov fulfills a few different interests of his — if he’s lucky, it does so simultaneously. The comedic element of improv ties into his work with comedy sketch crew, The Creamy Boyz, which was founded by Walsh and fellow cast members Brad Calder (senior) and Danny Scharar (junior). Singing games allow him to tap into a love for music he’s been developing since he was 10. Walsh plays “a whole slew of instruments,” one of which he might bust out for the popular game, Serenade, in which the troupe selects a random audience member, asks them a few basic questions then sings a personal serenade for them.
Since joining Fantastiprov as a sophomore, the senior Media Arts and Culture (MAC) major has watched the troupe shift in size and sense of humor. Though the addition of last year’s X-Rated show suggested some step toward vulgarity, Walsh believes the team knows how and where to juxtapose the crude with the clever.
“I think we still hold ourselves to the standard of, if you’re gonna say ‘f–k’ or you’re gonna make a crude joke, make it matter within the scene,” Walsh said. “Don’t make it a throwaway joke. Be smart about it. That’s the general, unwritten rule.”
Kylie Brakeman is a natural-born comic, but her introduction to improv was rooted in something much more calculated: revenge.
“I joined my high school [improv] team when I was 16 to get back at my ex-boyfriend,” Brakeman said. “He was on the team, I always thought he was really cool, and he always made me feel really bad or would put me down, so I was like, ‘I’ll show him, I’ll f—ing take what’s his,’ and then I did. High school me was into sabotage, and then I chilled out.”
Chill or no chill, Brakeman has established a comedic future both on- and off-campus. In addition to her involvement with Fantastiprov, she is a member of ComedySportz Los Angeles’ College Team. This troupe of 30 performs weekly at a theatre in Hollywood, setting the stakes slightly higher than those laid out for Occidental’s troupe in the Newcomb Hall common room. Brakeman sees Fantastiprov practices as opportunities to let off steam or try something new amongst comics who she knows support her and who, in the tradition of improv, will never say no.
Daniel Waruingi’s (first year) comedic performance is largely founded in his high school speech experience. He performed in two categories — Dramatic and Humorous Interpretations — both of which require participants to portray one or more characters at the same time. In taking on multiple roles, performers are often forced to interject or interrupt themselves. Waruingi’s speech work was his primary precursor to live improv, though he also starred in a school production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“Performance art has always been a weird thing for me because I’ve never had a professional outlet for it,” Waruingi said. “Fantastiprov was the first time I’ve been able to be like, ‘This is something I do other than just being funny, outside of making jokes with friends.’”
With reference to his experience switching in and out of character within Interpretation pieces, Waruingi said he enjoys author games, where a moderator interrupts a three-person scene by yelling, “new choice,” intermittently, thus forcing the players to find new actions. Because he enjoys games of this kind, he cites Hannibal Buress’ fast-paced stand-up routines as some of his favorites.
Danny Scharar (junior) developed his friendship with a fellow Fantastiprov cast member before pursuing comedy, joining the troupe or even arriving at Occidental. His older sister dated senior Brad Calder’s older brother while Scharar was in middle school, and by the time high school rolled around, the two had become fast friends.
Alongside Calder, Scharar’s comedic career began on a Las Vegas improv team outside of their school. The two joined the city-wide program’s high school cast and moved up to the league’s mainstage on the Las Vegas Strip a year and a half later. Calder was already performing with their high school’s improv troupe and encouraged Scharar to join him there as well. When Scharar arrived at Occidental, the two auditioned together once again, this time for Fantastiprov. They even cited the same improv game as their favorite: Melodrama, also known as Awkward Tension.
“The concept of the game is you move as slowly and quietly as possible,” Scharar said. “Me and Brad started playing that in high school, and we were just so enthralled with the idea of standing on stage in silence for a minute. We would get laughs just because it’s so uncomfortable.”
Growing up, if Mac Larsen (junior) was not on a stage, he was beside one. His parents’ respective theater backgrounds directed him toward the performance arts — at Occidental, he pursues Glee Club, Cadence and Fantastiprov. Larsen participates in each of these performance groups alongside Meagher, whose production, “[title of show],” featured Larsen in a starring role. Larsen also spends time with other Fantastiprov cast members on a frequent basis outside of mandated rehearsal.
“More so than other clubs, [Fantastiprov] just has this maddening democracy, a maddening attachment to one another,” Larsen said. “It’s very family oriented.”
The politics major is currently writing scripts for a “Weekend Update”–esque segment on Catalyst TV in an attempt to combine his field of study, interest in writing and a long-standing love for comedy. Rather than aiming to become a comedy writer directly out of college, Larsen hopes to spend time in the politics or journalism field before venturing back into comedy to satirize those topics.
“Improv is actually one of my biggest fears,” Greg Feiner (sophomore) said. “I’m terrified of doing improv and always have been.”
Even so, he admits that joining Fantastiprov as a first year and facing that fear has had its benefits.
“It’s helped me become a lot more open,” Feiner said. “And when I come to class underprepared, it helps me sound like I actually am.”
After being passed up for a role in the fall play his first semester on campus, Feiner turned to improv as a way of fulfilling his interest in theater. Now a theater major and a politics and Interdisciplinary Writing double minor, he’s considering further pursuing comedy through stand-up. That goal is yet to be fulfilled, as most stand-up clubs in LA are ages 21+ only, but Feiner is determined to work comedy into his life as a permanent fixture, whether it’s a hobby or an opportunity to pay the bills. On campus, he also writes and edits for student publications such as Feast Magazine, The Fang and The Occidental Weekly.
Both Scharar and Calder have come a long way since their time in Vegas. The mainstage show they used to perform in was X-Rated — a leap from Fantastiprov’s own X-Rated show in that it was tailored to an inebriated casino crowd instead of an Occidental audience.
“It was basically the dirtiest form of improv comedy you have,” Calder said. “Vulgar. Disgusting. But we played similar games to what we do here … Oxy audiences are smarter and less forgiving. When you’re in Vegas, you say a poop joke and everyone loses their minds. It’s easier there. Here, you have to work for it. It’s more challenging.”
The MAC major is hopeful that his improv experience will have some post-grad use, considering he plans to pursue film as a director, writer or performer. He also acts as one-third of The Creamy Boyz, contributing both behind and before the camera with Scharar and Walsh. Many of their shorts are filmed on campus, such as “The Personal Tour Guide,” in which Calder plays a faintly obsessive tour guide who talks more about his ex-girlfriend than the campus.
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