Bricks, Bears and Beyoncé: Yale University Improv Group Incorporates Audience Suggestions into Performance

“Boom!” bellowed members of the Yale Ex!t Players, Yale University’s oldest improv comedy group, as they leaped further back from the sides of Tang Theatre’s stage. Suddenly, the Ex!t Players sorted themselves into two rows and began to create whooshing noises with their mouths to mimic a spaceship landing, as Abigail Schneider and Jordy Gardenswartz, members of the group, acted as if they were the first humans to land on Mars.

This scene opened the Ex!t Players’s hour-long performance last Friday night in Tang Theatre. The group performed long-form improvisation, a type of improvisation in which the group uses suggestions from the audience to create skits. The Ex!t Players visited Andover as a part of their New England tour. The group currently consists of Schneider, Gardenswartz, Isaac Hudis, Eliana Kwartler ’12, Sam Levatich, Marisa London, Deb Monti, Hannah Billingsley and Matt Klineman.

“I think that something particular to tour shows is that we’re performing for completely new audiences, and often we’re performing for audiences that, for example, haven’t seen long-form before so they’re not used to that kind of comedy. It’s totally different when there’s no one in the audience who knows you, so that can be something that changes the tenor of the performance. We try as best as we can to really make it about doing our best performance for each other so no matter what the audience is, we really do our best first,” said Kwartler.

The Ex!t Players began the show using an improvisation technique called Armando, in which the improvisers perform stories told by the audience. The group asked Auguste White ’17 first, who listed her favorite television shows and songs and shared stories from her daily life as a Prefect in Double Brick House. Then, based on the information from White’s interview, the Players performed a series of quick and witty sketches.

Levatich said, “It’s rewarding for the person being interviewed to see what in their story inspires us and how it inspires us, and it’s the same for the audience too, because they heard the interview. We think it’s a ton of fun to see what we can find that makes for fun scenes from a monologue.”

The Ex!t Players invented one fictional sketch that chronicled police officers investigating a murder. In the sketch, two police officers on the scene argued with other officers in the station about whether the two bricks lying next to the victim were the murder weapons. “It’s a two-brick fall! A double brick, if you will,” Hudis announced, alluding to White’s interview.

Noble Ohakam ’18, an audience member, said, “The interesting thing is just how easy it seemed for them to just come up with every idea that they had, [for example] from the story that they got from [White]. If I had been on stage, I probably would’ve taken a lot more time to just come up with something that seemed a little bit hilarious.”

London and Schneider performed a type of improv called Close Quarters, when an audience member suggests a location that becomes the setting in the ensuing sketch. The pair acted as children conversing with teddy bears that they had won at a carnival. The teddy bears, played by Hudis and Monti, could talk back and were arguing with their human owners about the difference between teddy bears and humans.

Levatich said, “[A challenge I experience on stage is] making small choices in acting and acting on them, because when you’re up on stage, there are two people standing there, and there’s nothing else there. So all that is created up there is a back-and-forth between those two improvisers. It’s a vulnerable place to be, and you can see there’s a lot of pressure to advance the scene, but if each person alternates adding a small thing, that is the most rewarding way to build a scene and often creates the most rewarding scenes to watch.”

The night closed with a final skit that featured Levatich portraying an enraged construction worker who was left by his co-workers to build a stage by himself. When he finished the construction of the stage, Levatich launched into an impassioned monologue about the woes of having to do all the work on his own, until he was interrupted by Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, played by Billingsley and Klineman respectively, who had come to perform on his stage. Frustrated by this interruption, Levatich began stomping around the stage as various other notable figures, such as President Obama, continued to approach him, offering to perform on his now-finished stage.

Gracie Limoncelli ’18 said, “The last skit was really funny when the guy was building the stage, so [the stage] kind of built up throughout the event. The players kept coming back to the idea of ‘you’re building a stage.’ So at the end, he was complaining about how he was the only one who was building it, and that was just really funny, [especially] when all these famous people came onstage.”