The Neighborhood Improv Is a Place to Laugh 'Til You Fall Over

It's disillusioning but, ultimately, reassuring to learn that improv comedy has structure and rules and stuff like that (for its performers). The reassuring part comes when you realize that 1) "solid improv experience" is not an oxymoron and 2) dedicated application of technique makes for reliable craziness (also not an oxymoron).

The disillusioning part comes from trying to wrap your head around this concept from the outside and having flashbacks of that tightly wound camp counselor or family member who kept harshing your mellow by pointing out that you were playing the game wrong. For example, the madly skilled troupes that grace the beensy stage of The Torch Theatre's new space on Central Avenue, just south of Camelback Road, specialize in longform improv. That scrap of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Does that mean the performances are *whine* long? No. Do you need to know what it does mean? No.

Know what? You, the audience member, can either ignore all the definitions or learn more here. It won't really affect whether you think stuff is funny, thank God.

I had a basis for wary trepidation of Torch's The Neighborhood longform improv series that's completely independent of my general fear of comedy (which I mention again only because I know I'm not alone). Having read about Phoenix Neutrino Project, for example, a pantload of times but never having actually managed to catch it during its peak a few years back, I've never had any idea what it means to attend (if that's even an appropriate verb) Neutrino Project or what happens (ditto) at it (if that's even an appropriate pronoun). During it? From it? Yeah, nada.

You can say you're a spontaneous person, but how often do you accept an invitation to something you're not even sure is a place, an experience, an activity, or an event? This vague feeling of, well, vagueness doesn't scream "fun evening." It's not the 1960s any more. Some artists won't hesitate to bore you with something only they find meaningful, and you can't even count on there being random sexual activity and substance abuse to redeem those hours of your life.

So, do I, even after reading descriptions of The Neighborhood, researching improv in general, and attending the September 3 installment featuring Leslie Barton, know why it's considered longform? Not really. (Sometimes I stay relatively uninformed on purpose, so I can appreciate a performance as if I were just walking in off the street, to make sure that you can, too. Other times I stay relatively uninformed so I can spend more time on Regretsy.)

Did it turn out to matter that I don't know why? No. Is it funny? Oh, hell yes. They know what they're doing, and that's the magic.

Apparently, many types of longform (all of them, for all I know) start off with an individual (sometimes an open mic participant) telling a story/delivering a monologue -- sometimes inspired by an audience suggestion. Then the improvisers perform a scene inspired by that story -- then rinse and repeat. There's the Harold, the Armando, ASSSSCAT, and Phoenix's very own The Neighborhood, which features a pre-selected member of the local arts community delivering the kickoff stories.

So there we are in the theater, and Barton's introduced, and she asks the audience to suggest something. Somebody (okay, it was me) says "cake." She riffs for a bit and then remembers her 8th birthday party and shares detailed memories of rain, the basement, primping in front of an old-school giant camcorder, etc.

Then three members of The Foundation (Jacque Arend, Nina Miller, and Sam Haldiman -- usually six improvisers perform in The Neighborhood, but it was a holiday weekend) take the stage and create a series of tangentially related and funny short scenes. Then Barton is spontaneously reminded of a Scout camping trip, and she tells us about it, and it's even funnier than the first story. Even funnier improvised scenes follow.

The performers all agree that one more story is in order, and Barton describes her visit to a Sunnyslope BDSM dungeon, which included demos of vaginal fisting and male urethral insertion (a.k.a. sounding), making the whole experience sound like the Industrial Pavilion at the State Fair. More scenes, and -- good night!

Um, don't bring the kids, I guess, but this is much less scary than going to see some unknown standup. The Foundation, especially Arend, was just stellar, displaying intelligence, courage, and vulnerability in hilarious ways that deprived me of oxygen. 

The Torch Theatre does a huge variety of stuff in formats that recur more or less weekly or monthly, including free classes and something called Improvised Book Club. I'm no longer afraid of them, and I'm considering inserting the venue on my route to and from everywhere else, just so that I'll have more opportunities to stop and catch a show that's guaranteed to get those silly endorphins going.

The Neighborhood is presented at 8:30 p.m. each Saturday at The Torch Theatre, 4721 North Central Avenue. Admission to all Torch performances is $10. The theater's quite small, so I recommend arranging your seats ahead of time here -- you know, unless you're very spontaneous. Call 602-456-2876 for more information.

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson