The Unscripted Art of Improv

by Nikhita Hingorani | 9/27/17 2:30am


We’ve all been there. Telling a joke, or being told a joke, that is absolutely hilarious to the speaker but met with confusion or even worse, forced laughter by the audience. Whether it’s the bad pun your friend makes during your study session, the classic “dad joke” your father makes over dinner, or — my personal favorite — that cringe-worthy joke your professor cracks in the middle of a lecture, comedy is truly an art form, and sometimes jokes told on the spot just don’t go as smoothly as we anticipate.

Do you ever wonder if your favorite late-night comedian would still be as funny if they were just thrown on stage, without a noteworthy one-liner or amusing anecdote, and forced to make the audience laugh solely through whatever comes to their mind? Scripted comedy is entertaining in its own way; however, improv comedy takes the accomplishment of making people laugh to the next level, with sharp wit and spontaneity being the primary factors toward successful humor.

At Dartmouth, we are lucky enough to have two student groups whose main focus is bringing some joy into our lives. Dog Day Players and Casual Thursday have both mastered the improvisation comedy form. The primary difference between the two is that Dog Day specializes in “long-form” improv, in which a lengthier show is created based on a short inspiration, such as a monologue or an event, whereas Casual Thursday focuses on the “short-term” version, comprised of quick scenes and games.

Comedy is highly subjective, and it is never certain how well a joke will end up playing out. Without a script, the improv comedian himself doesn’t even know what the joke will turn out to be. However, fourth-year Dog Day performer Emily Everhard ’18 doesn’t think this is too big of an obstacle to overcome. Rather, she said being an improv comedian has taught her some valuable skills that she can utilize both on-stage and off.

“I’ve learned a lot about thinking on my feet, being flexible, working with other people and having to keep an open mind, because you never know what people are going to say,” she said.

Sure, scripts are beneficial for many artistic forms, but the basic premise of improv lies in the beauty of the unknown. Is your partner going to follow the route you’re trying to take with the characters? Will the audience think the punchline you’re about to make is relevant? Your group totally changed the mood of the scene — so what are you supposed to say now?

Throughout her performances, Everhard has realized the benefits of being confident with the act of going on stage absolutely unscripted.

“One of the biggest things I had to learn when I first started improv was that you couldn’t walk on stage with too much of a plan, because a lot of scenes go wrong when you go out with that preconceived idea that eventually gets completely negated,” she said.

For many Dartmouth students, sophomore summer is the ideal time to take part in a new activity, and Dog Day and Casual Thursday are both popular performance groups for students to get involved with. Sarah Salzman ’18 recounted her time in the expanded sophomore summer version of Dog Day, dubbed “Dog Days of Summer,” with great fondness.

“I’ve never really been involved with any arts groups on campus,” she said. “I knew that I just wanted to try something new and different, and they seemed like they had a lot of fun.”

Participants rehearsed a few hours per week, and the term culminated in various performances around the College.

By the end of her time in Dog Days of Summer, Salzman, who claims to “not be a natural at words,” realized that it wasn’t really a big deal if she messed up on stage while improvising, since the show would just keep on going, regardless of what she ended up saying.

Fiona Bowen ’18 also ventured into comedy during her sophomore summer, participating in Casual Thursday’s seasonal group. Her perception of improv didn’t seem to change much after her term involved, and she was actually quite surprised about how easily she adapted to the unscripted environment.

“It was pretty much what I thought it was going to be, but I actually didn’t expect it to happen as naturally,” she said. “The thing about doing improv is that you just have to get up there and say something, so you do.”

Another vital component of successful improv is the ability to work as a team, which is accompanied by aspects such as adaptability and cooperation. There is no one-man show in either Dog Day nor Casual Thursday, and performances are based upon how interactions between characters are created and further developed by the unique mannerisms and actions of the performers.

The show’s progression relies on everyone on stage, and each member’s contribution, whether through voice or action, is used towards fulfilling the ultimate goal of keeping the audience entertained. Everhard calls this “the unplanned act of making a script happen” and embraces not knowing how her fellow performers are going to respond.

“Improv is all about just trusting your gut, not thinking too much, being willing to blurt whatever comes out and knowing that the other people on stage are going to support you no matter what,” she said.

For both performers and audiences, the best type of improvisational comedy is, as Everhard remarks, what is “real and relatable.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that we find comfort in seeing a staged performance being as unpredictable as life itself. After all, we all have the tendency to want to perfectly plan our lives out, but time and time again we find ourselves realizing that some of the greatest moments lie in the unscripted.