Making it up as they go
Crayons! Improv colors downtown Tulsa with laughs
Jennifer Thomas, Beth Geatches, Evan Fenska, Lee Miller, Nicole Miller, Tony Schneider, and Anna Bennett of Crayons! Improv // Photo by Tom Fink
Have you ever been in a conversation that flowed so freely it seemed like a comedy routine? The connection is amazing. You’re talking about something ridiculous. The other person can seemingly read your mind to finish a sentence, and then you both laugh so hard you almost wet your pants.
Now imagine doing that in front of an audience, on command.
Crayons! Improv, created in 2006 by co-founders Nicole Miller and Dan Wooten, does just that every Friday night. Since forming the group, Wooten moved to Milwaukee to pursue other musical and theatrical endeavors, but Miller is still chugging along. She sat down with the Voice to explain how the group’s members create hilarious theater on the spot.
“For me, I think comedy comes from the truth in life,” she said.
For those unfamiliar with the format, improv forces the actors to create all the elements of a scene out of thin air, usually incorporating a suggestion from the audience. The magic created is always a combination of the cast dynamics and the energy from the crowd.
“At an improv show, the audience is another cast member in the group,” Miller said. “The normal rules of theater don’t apply. We really want the audience to communicate with us.”
Sometimes the group asks for written suggestions, and sometimes the audience calls out directly from their seats. Occasionally, an audience member is even invited onstage to participate in a scene. But don’t let that scare you–Crayons! only uses willing volunteers, so there’s no pressure or embarrassment to fear. Oh, and you can bring the kiddos, because Crayons! sticks to clean, smart, family-friendly comedy at their shows.
The troupe presents what is known as “short form improv,” similar to what you might see on the hit show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Fans of that show will recognize at least one element in common with the Crayons! experience: The performers sometime crack each other up.
“Although we try not to break character, it will happen,” Miller said. “And when it does, I think it helps the audience see that we’re enjoying what we’re doing, that we’re human, and then they enjoy it even more.”
Miller said some of the best performers in the group come from fields you wouldn’t expect.
“Some of the best improvisers didn’t start out as actors,” she said. While some of the members do have a theater background, including one who is in the cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center next month, Crayons! has members who are everything from counselors to medical students.
Their new home base at the Comedy Parlor comes after several years of bouncing around from festivals in Austin, Chicago, and other Midwestern cities to coffee houses and churches and anywhere else that would let them mount a show. After their first show, Miller had a visceral response to the audience.
“We just killed, and our audience was astounded. So it just clicked that this is what I’m supposed to do,” she said.
Since that show, several of the Crayons have trained with the world famous Second City school and begun their own program of “Crayons-In-Training” that teaches new performers how to hone their skills.
“The best part about being a CIT in Crayons! is getting the chance to learn new techniques for performing improv, plus the atmosphere is really friendly, which helps build confidence,” said trainee Daniel Robbins in an email to the Voice. It’s that confidence that helps the performers form tight bonds, put their newfound skills to the test, and really grow as professionals, Miller said.
Miller has been encouraged by the increasingly positive attitude toward improv in the comedy world and from the local arts scene.
“Since 2006, I think it’s blown up a lot more in Tulsa, especially with the opening of the Comedy Parlor,” she said. Indeed, this troupe has become a downtown favorite, with a weekly show on Friday evenings. Their eclectic mix of talent and tomfoolery is the only constant; every weekend the show itself is something entirely different.
So what does all this humor do for Miller?
“I know that for me personally, when I say or do something on the stage, maybe not even intentionally, and it makes someone laugh, that feeds my soul. I definitely get a rush from that. It’s better than any drug.”
Every Friday Night
Comedy Parlor, 328 E. 1st St
Tickets - $5