In a room of 70 students who auditioned for Improv Inc., only one person, Zachary Salem-Mackall, was selected.
Salem-Mackall, a sophomore communication studies major, had never done improvisational acting prior to his audition in February and had only seen one improv show before auditioning.
“I went to the Valentine’s Day show, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, these are undeniably the funniest people on campus. I want to hang out with them, and I want to do this with them,’” he said. “I just thought I would have so much fun, so I tried out.”
Improv Inc. is one of the select free shows hosted regularly on Chapman’s campus. Cripe said it typically pulls a crowd of nearly 200.
“I’d like to think it’s a welcoming thing, like anyone’s welcome to come, and there’s such a wide variety of people (at the shows),” said Kelly Cripe, a sophomore film production major. “It’s also rarer here. If there were like thousands of improv shows in Orange, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal.”
Improv Inc. is a 12-person comedy club on campus that performs every other Thursday at 10 p.m. in Irvine Lecture Hall.
At each show, students fill up the seats, steps and standing room in the back of the lecture hall, which has a capacity of 188 people.
“We’ve had so much more than 188 (students),” Cripe said. “But there haven’t been any issues with (Public Safety) because of it.”
Alexa Dameri, a sophomore business administration major and self-proclaimed improv “groupie,” was shocked by the talent on the team when she saw her first show with her roommates in fall 2016.
“After seeing my first show, we just became obsessed with all of the improv people, and we were like, ‘They’re amazing, they’re so talented,’” she said.
Dameri said she has to get there at 9:15 p.m. — 45 minutes before the show — just so she could get seats.
Despite their popularity among students, the Improv Inc. team has never seriously considered charging an entrance fee for students, Cripe said.
“We would lose so much of our audience if we charged for shows,” she said. “Part of the appeal is that it’s a free thing to do on a Thursday night with friends.”
Dameri would likely attend fewer shows if she had to pay, she said.
“I want to go every single week, but I would end up going less if they charged, or I would try to sneak in. I think I would just find a way to get around paying,” she said.
However, the team does hold fundraisers at shows for other causes, like hurricane or earthquake relief.
“At the first show of this school year, we did some stuff to fundraise for Houston, and we just had people Venmo us during the show. We didn’t raise a huge amount of money, but we still tried,” Salem-Mackall said. “ I think it’s partly beautiful because it’s free.”
The group also hasn’t considered moving to a bigger performance location, like the Musco Center for the Arts or Memorial Hall.
“That would be so weird,” Cripe said. “Improv is designed for small spaces. It’s supposed to be a bonding thing where even the audience is involved. I don’t know if there’s a place other than Irvine Lecture Hall that would really work for that.”
Part of the appeal of the performances is having the members in a classroom-type space, because students find it entertaining to make inappropriate jokes while in a classroom setting, Cripe said. It also makes the shows more interactive, she said.
“I like having them in the lecture hall because it’s not a huge space, but it’s not where you can’t get everybody in there. I also like that it’s more intimate,” Dameri said. “The atmosphere is also really fun when you go in there and there are a lot of people being loud and stuff. I like the rowdy, over-crowded feel of it.”
When Improv Inc. started at Chapman over a decade ago, the team held shows in an Argyros Forum classroom, and throughout the years it has gained a large enough fanbase to move to Irvine Lecture Hall, Salem-Mackall said.
“I know whoever started the team would be amazed at where we are,” he said.
The group rehearses on Sundays from 8 – 10 p.m., Mondays 10 p.m. – midnight, and will have occasional pickup rehearsals when they “feel like they need it,” Cripe said.
After each show, the members of Improv Inc. sit in a circle and give each other notes.
“We take it very seriously. We don’t just get up on stage and mess around for an hour or so,” Cripe said. “It might look effortless, or like it’s just a ‘natural’ talent we all share — and yes, some of the people on our team are very naturally talented — but it’s a matter of work, effort and really trying hard to put on a show for these people who came to see us.”
As someone new to improv, Salem-Mackall was shocked by how much there was to learn.
“People think that (Improv is) kind of just fun and happens naturally, but we practice four hours a week, go to shows constantly and are constantly trying to train,” he said. “There are so many rules when it comes down to it; there are aspects of it that can’t be taught, and there are aspects of it that can be taught.”
These “aspects” can range from quickly establishing a setting of a scene or the information of a character, to taking a one-word suggestion from the audience and creating a 20-minute scene based off it.
Improv is an imperative part of learning to act, said Chapman theatre professor John Benitz.
“It’s more of a matter of learning how to truly be comfortable on stage while performing,” he said. “You don’t have to be talented in improv to be talented in acting as a whole, but if you have a strong talent for improv, it could help someone immensely.”
Benitz said most theatre students take improv at some point throughout their education because it is different from other types of acting.
“You stand up there, and you have to think exactly of what happens next, you have to make sure it flows with the plot and the character you’ve set, and somehow, at the same time, it has to be funny,” he said. “Being good at improv, in many ways, just has to come naturally from who you are. A lot of it can be taught, sure, but a lot of it has to be a natural skill.”
Salem-Mackall, who had never acted in his life, admitted this learning curve hit him hard — especially since he was the only newcomer in the spring 2017 semester.
“When you’re new on improv, you can tell and everyone else can tell, and it’s definitely very nerve-racking,” he said. “Improv is so personal, and with each scene I know I’m going to need to do so much and learn so much.That’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to get into.”
Nonetheless, Salem-Mackall often feels lucky to be on Improv Inc., with their rowdy, over-crowded audiences, he said.
“There has never been a time where I have been comfortable — with myself or with improv,” he said. “But that’s what makes it amazing.”