Improvisational comedy is becoming one of St. Olaf’s hottest commodities, as packed houses at this year’s Scared Scriptless shows can attest. So when posters appeared around campus advertising the debut of West End Improv, students were understandably excited and filled the Hoyme Upper Lounge to capacity on Nov. 21.
The format of the show was a family dinner lasting about half an hour. Each improviser Denzel Belin ’15, Preston West ’16, Allison Lonigro ’16, Tom Reuter ’17, Liam Gibb ’17, Swannie Willstein ’18 and Christian Conway ’18 had a secret none of the other family members knew, from an affair with Bill Clinton to theft from charity. The combination of familial chaos and these secrets was employed to great comedic effect and elicited plenty of laughter throughout the show.
Those who attended West End’s opening show noticed that the format was very different from Scared Scriptless shows. That is because the two groups perform different styles of comedy. Scared Scriptless uses “short form improv,” which involves three- to five-minute games and short sketches, while West End uses “long form,” in which there is one premise for the entire show. This form relies on improvisers to create the scene and the humor on their own. For the improvisers, it is a good way to work with a set group and learn each person’s individual style.
West End was formed by Belin after a conversation with Lonigro.
“I did some long form one or two years ago and wasn’t getting enough of it in my life,” said Belin. “I was like, ‘What happened to the other two long form groups?’ and then thought, ‘I bet I could do that. Who would I want to work with?'”
“It was remarkably easy to gather the group,” Lonigro said.
As for the name “West End Improv,” it was a group decision made after a long night of brainstorming. Many other group names were rejected, from P-SPLAT to West Side Booty, but the group settled on West End for four reasons: all the players live on the west side of campus, it sounds classy, it is an homage to the West End theater district of London and it is also a hint at Preston West’s rear end.
It is clear from talking to the improvisers and watching them perform that the camaraderie and cooperation of the group is remarkable, with everyone pitching in for the benefit of the group. Belin, a self-described “big idea person,” delegates smaller details, such as social media, to the rest of the group.
In addition, they each bring a unique style of comedy to the table that the other improvisers can build upon, from Conway’s over-the-top matriarchs, to Willstein’s Russian and German accents, to Reuter’s taciturn and physical characters to Gibb’s clever and wordy quips.
“It’s very rewarding. We can feel comfortable enough to introduce aliens because we trust in ourselves,” Belin said.
The one rule of improve is that the improvisers must do whatever they can to further a scene with their scene partners, and be open to anything in order to do so.
“Cthulu might make an appearance and we would all go ‘yes, and,'” Belin said.
“No matter how much our voices tremble, we always say ‘yes, and,'” Gibb added.
If you are interested in watching West End perform, you might have to be patient. The group has no plans for a show the rest of the semester or over Interim, but wants to perform lots of shows second semester featuring all sorts of new improv games they are excited to try.
Keep your ears open; when West End announces its next show you will have to get there early because you are not going to want to miss it.