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Improv touring company hits campus

Gangsters in Priuses, bourgeoisie badgers and screaming townies—all these figures were present in Harris on Tuesday evening, as performers from the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy troupe based in New York and Los Angeles, took the stage to perform improv comedy at Grinnell for the second time.

The three comics that were in the troupe—Johnny Meeks, Joel Spence and Tricia McAlpin—are based in Los Angeles but were finishing their tour of Midwestern colleges at Grinnell. The team learned some details about Grinnell from having dinner with members of Grinnell’s own improv group, Ritalin Test Squad, before the show. McAlpin admitted that she had also done some Wikipedia research before the show. “But that’s because I’m a geek,” she said.

Despite their research, the UCB squad likes to go into their shows with minimal preparation.

“We don’t pre-plan anything,” Spence said.

The bulk of the first half of their show was taken from an impromptu interview with Carla Eckland ’13, who told them about a strange encounter from earlier in the day. The second half consisted of short sketches based on text messages students in the audience had sent or received.

Some of the loudest laughter during the show came from members of the Ritalin Test Squad, who had opened for the UCB performers.

“Professional improv is on a such a different level,” said RTS member Dodge Greenley ’11.

The show was also an educational experience for the RTS.

“You see their minds working in ways you’re trying to make your mind work,” said Charles Frantz ’11.

Such admiration was reciprocated by members of the UCB team, who were impressed by RTS’ teamwork.

“They were really supporting each other,” McCalpin said.

Members of the UCB team thought that improv was especially popular on college campuses.

“College kids like comedy. Then after college you’re depressed,” Meeks said.

McAlpin took a slightly different view. “It’s a smart people thing,” she said.

The UCB performers elaborated on how they pride themselves on playing to the top of their intelligence, thus mentally leveling themselves with many college students.

The appeal of improv extends beyond college campuses, as illustrated by the popularity of companies like UCB.
“It’s so immediate,” said Spence. “There were moments tonight when we didn’t know what we were going to say,” he said, to murmurs of agreement. This was hard to tell during the show—the performance was surprisingly lucid.
The RTS team seemed invigorated with new ideas.

“The show [that] UCB did here two years ago was a big turning point for me,” Greenley said.

Unlike RTS, the Brigade does long-form improv—that is, they incorporate their improvisation into pre-conceived sketches. RTS, on the other hand, uses short games to get their improvisation going. Frantz and Greenley expressed an interest in incorporating long-form in the future.

If the UCB had been at all nervous, they didn’t show it—they were energized by performing in a setting other than Los Angeles.

“It’s fun to bring elsewhere,” Meeks said.

And, despite their lack of preparation, their show had a uniquely Grinnellian flavor—it featured references to 10/10, social activism and, of course, gender binaries. The RTS, though, infused their short skits with a variety of foreign (and possibly made-up) accents, and both troupes incorporated an array of bizarre behaviors into their acts.
“It’s always so amazing how profound and funny you can be,” Spence said.

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