The UGA student troupe Improv Athens saved its best performance for last in the South Regional Competition of the College Improv Tournament this past November, winning in the competition’s final round.
“I was absolutely ecstatic,” said Maggie Blaeser, a junior theatre and psychology major from Dunwoody who is co-leader of Improv Athens, a student organization formed four years ago in the department of theatre and film studies. “Winning was not only a joy to us, but showed what collegiate improv was capable of.”
In the regional competition at the Relapse Theatre in Atlanta, the troupe faced off against nine other teams, including those from the University of Florida, Emory, Georgia Tech and Mississippi State. The competition was split into preliminary rounds of three to four schools, with the winner advancing to finals. After capturing the regional competition, Improv Athens moves on to compete in the national competition in Chicago on Feb. 26.
“Improv Athens was the only team in the South regional that had a better show in its finals than in its preliminary match,” said Jonathan Pitts, executive director of Chicago Improv Festival Productions College and founder of CIF’s College Improv Tournament. “To have your best show in the finals speaks well to a team’s ability to succeed and thrive under pressure when you are making things up on the spot in front of a paying audience.”
How do you make a competition out of improv? During the three rounds, each team takes audience suggestions and has 25 minutes to see what they can come up with.
“In improv there is short form, like what you might see on Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, and long form, which is more of a theatrical production with longer scenes and character arcs,” said Katie Causey, a junior theatre and English major from Warner Robins who also is a co-leader of the troupe. “We did a long form, where the protagonist stays on stage and the rest of the ensemble members come on and are different people in that person’s life.”
Improv Athens performs with six members out of the 13-member organization. While often comedic, typically the best way to capture audience attention, the acting also can become serious depending on how the live improvisation unfolds.
“The thing that sets improv apart from other performances is that you do it with the audience, rather than at or to them,” said
F. Tyler Burnet, a graduate student in the department of theatre and film studies and graduate adviser to Improv Athens. He has improvised professionally as well as taught at The Second City. “Unlike most competitions, these student performers bring an energy and enthusiasm that professional groups just can’t touch.”
According to Pitts, what set Improv Athens apart from its competitors was the group’s comedic exploration and investigation of different characters they create as their focus, as well as displaying a fine sense of story.
“They play with a great deal of commitment, confidence and ensemble support of funny and talented actors,” Pitts said.
The College Improv Tournament is a form of educational outreach with the goal of creating community and building the art form as it prepares college-level improvisors for the next levels of semi-professional and professional.
“Through this celebration of college improvisation, with a little bit of competition thrown in, we are able to give the college players a taste of what it’s like to improvise under some pressure and do multiple shows in one day,” Pitts said.
“One of the things that excites me most about Improv Athens is that it has been a purely student-initiated and governed group from day one,” said David Saltz, head of the department of theatre and film studies. “The group exemplifies our students’ passion, drive and leadership skills.”