Roars of laughter filled the classroom as the Prison University Project (PUP) Improv Troupe put on the last of two performances for the spring semester.
The April 19 show was a result of everything that the students learned in the Improv for Life class.
“Everything that you are about to see has not been planned; it has not been rehearsed; it comes from the shoulders, or as we say it, improv,” said SQN staffer, MC Aaron “Showtime” Taylor as he welcomed the crowd.
Improvisations are routines in which groups of performers act out skits without any rehearsal or planning. The direction for the skits comes from scenarios suggested by the audience.
Student Angel Villafan took the improv class after seeing improv shows on TV such as Who’s Line is It Anyway and Me Caigo de la Risa.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought we were just going to act,” Villafan said, “I didn’t know there was a science behind it.”
He enjoyed learning about the six pillars of improv: trust, active listening, spontaneity, presence, storytelling, and accepting offers.
“Improv gave me a chance to practice everything I’ve learned in self-help groups, college, and interactions in prison in a real life set- ting,” Villafan explained. “If you told some guys at other higher level prisons, they wouldn’t believe us. This class is very unique. At any other prison, you couldn’t bring the races together. Now, I can call these guys my brothers”
The premier skit was based on a style of game called Super Scene.
Troupe member Dashawn Nicholson explained the rules: three actors, Mike Moore, Devin Torrance and Jonathan Chiu, would direct the other team members to act out scenes in a fictitious movie with imaginary props. When the Improv troupe decided that the scene was over, they would say, “End Scene.” After each director presented a scenario, the audience voted on their favorite 2 scenes, which they would like to see another act from. After the second round, a winner would be chosen for a third and final scene.
Torrance directed the first act in which Steve Brooks — “the quickest gun in the West”—played the main character in a Western movie. As he walked into a saloon, Aaron Taylor, playing a bartender garnered laughter from the crowd as he said, “We don’t serve your kind around here,” while pouring imaginary drinks. Both men are Black, which made this scene uniquely surprising and light- hearted — given the culture of racial segregation and ten- sion in many prison settings. Sheriff Losdini played by Carlos Meza then stood up on the other side of the saloon with his deputies and told Brooks to leave.
The next skit was directed by Jonathan Chiu — a super- hero movie in which a main champion, accompanied by his devoted sidekick and a set of Siamese superheroes were all searching for a bad guy to battle. Troupe members Brooks and Shatka were the star actors, playing the Siamese
twins as Jonathan Chiu directed them to stand back to back with their arms interlocked. In the tradition of improv, audience members were encouraged to participate in the form of suggesting topics or even by voting for their favorite scenes, but the whole room was pleasantly surprised, including the PUP Improv Troupe, when audience member George “Mesro” Coles courageously and spontaneously stepped out of the crowd to play the evil su- per villain. Everyone prepared for a battle.
The final act of the first round was Mike Moore’s newsroom scene in which three reporters were creating quirky stories. Michael Moore not only directed the scene, but also played the editor in the newsroom. He asked a writer what their story was about and the reporter re- plied it was about cats in the hood. As the crowd was still laughing, the next reporter explained that his story was about rats in the hood. The chemistry between the performers was evident in their ability to seamlessly develop a story upon each other’s last
line. Moore then suggested that the two writers combine their stories into a story about cats and rats gang banging in the hood.
Nicholson conducted the voting round, during which the crowd cheered the loudest for the Western scene and the superhero scene. He bid goodbye to the story about the reporters in the newsroom.
The actors were taught in class that when a story is voted out, they should say goodbye to the story and not to the person who created it. By doing this, they created a culture that celebrated failure as a learning experience and encouraged their team to try again in the future.
The second round started with Devin’s Western scene.
This time Brooks came back to the saloon with his sidekick Jack so that they could finish off the sheriff and his crew. Both Brooks and Jack rode their imaginary horses to the bar and tied them up outside. The following gunfight had the whole crowd laughing as all of the deputies fell to the ground before Brooks was even seen draw- ing his imaginary gun.
“The fastest gun in the West,” said Brooks. The only people left standing were Sheriff Losdini and Brooks.
Next, Chiu opened up his second scene with the main superhero losing his life in the battle while his dedicated sidekick was crying in distress. The Siamese Superheroes were somehow split up during the battle and the sidekick ended up trying to stick them back together.
The crowd then voted for Chiu’s superhero movie to move on to the third round.
The scene opened with the Siamese Superheroes and the sidekick all somehow getting stuck together. With their backs together and their arms interlocked, they had to keep rotating in a circle to fight the bad guy, who was the main super- hero resurrected from the dead.
The show ended with comments from the audience.
“Now y’all have let me know that all y’all crazy,” said Jack Benford, “It was hella good.”
Wife and husband Elena and Martin Lichtenthaler taught the improvisation class. They are also part of the Berkeley Improv Troupe, where they practice improvisation in their free time. The unexpected duo, from Germany, are both visiting scholars at UC Berkeley, with Martin studying chemistry and Elena study- ing Chinese food politics.
“When attending an improv show, the audience should expect to have a good time, to be surprised, and to experience emotions,” said Elena, “It’s much more than just comedy.”
In the class, they aim to teach the scholars-in-blue improv skills that will benefit them in their everyday lives. These skills include: celebrating risk, building trust, supporting others, failing well, and being generous. The troupe practiced these skills throughout the semester, which gave them the cohesion needed for such an entertaining performance.
“If you can be vulnerable, develop empathy, and fail well; it makes you a better person,” explained Martin, “You don’t have to be funny or witty. Just be present, and I’m confident good things will happen.”