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Playing professionally: A look at local improv and how to get good at it

The Black Dirt Theater Improve troupe poses for a classic "silly" picture. Photo courtesy of Andrew Hill1 / 2
The 2018-19 Black Dirt Improv troupe based in Hastings spells-out "Improv." From left to right: Tom Sorenson, Erika Sassevile, Sean Jones, Ryan Ayre, Joren Skov, Leah Christine, Ryan Quade, Zach Filkins and Victorica Temiz. Photo courtesy of Andrew Hill2 / 2

Joren Skov, a member of Black Dirt Improv, said improv is "like writing. The idea is you can write something 20 times and just be like, 'this is bad.' And until you've been writing frequently and you have that practice of it, you're creativity won't come out. You might have a brilliant idea but being able to communicate it well will be impossible until you've flexed that muscle long enough."

Improv takes practice.

That is the main takeaway from talking with four of the nine members of the Black Dirt Improv troupe based in Hastings.

When each member was asked how they got into improv, they all said roughly the same thing. They started around high school and after doing it for awhile, realized they weren't any good at it.

Erika Sasseville explained that someone is good at improv "when it becomes less about what you're doing and more about what you're creating together." By this definition, all of the "players" on the troupe are very good at improv.

Upcoming shows

Black Dirt Improv has two shows a month, both on the same day. One at 7 p.m., the other at 9 p.m. The group, according to Tom Sorenson, makes sure that its shows remain family friendly.

"Anyone can go vulgar. ... We chose to be clever over dirty."

"For the 9 o'clock (show) we might push the envelope a little bit but it's stuff that could probably slide in a PG movie," Zach Filkins said.

At the 9 p.m. show in January, the group "slid the envelope" about as far as it would go. During one scene, group member Ryan Ayre played the mistress of a man getting married. He made numerous sexual innuendos that older members of the audience would get (and did get, and laughed very hard at) but jokes that were meant to not make sense to those under the age of 13.

"If my mom was in the third row and didn't blush, we're OK," said Sorenson. "She was choking at one point, but that's OK."

Improv is an art

According to Filkins, who leads the troupe with Skov, Black Dirt Improv used to be almost all games. Now, there is a combination of games and short scenes. One game that was played during the January show was a combination of charades and Taboo. Sasseville left the stage while the rest of the group decided on a variety of strange things that she had to guess. To make the game more complicated (and funny) the cast switched important details. Sorenson asked the audience for suggestions. The troupe members would have to get Sasseville to guess these details by only using actions and gibberish.

After Skov's motion of having giant, puffy hair, Sean Jones pretending to cry and place the tears on Sasseville's pretend canvas and palette, Victoria Temiz acting out that she received a Grammy for singing, and then Skov stomping around stage like a sad hippo, Sasseville guessed all of the strange facts.

Some scenes and games were funnier than others, but they were all entertaining. Though the exact outcomes of games and scenes are, obviously, improvised, the group practices once a week. According to Sorenson, chemistry is really important in improv. It helps group members work together and set one another up because, according to the four troupe members, you are good at improv when you create something as a group instead of being funny individually.

The group also works on different skills and techniques at the weekly rehearsals. Along with Black Dirt Improv there is "Improv Lite," the group for beginners or those who need to develop more skills before making it to Black Dirt Improv. Sasseville and Sorenson are the leaders of the lite group.

Every year Black Dirt holds auditions. Those who audition are either placed on Black Dirt or Improv Lite. Sasseville explained that Improv Lite is "more community based, so if you can't make a couple of rehearsals, that's fine. You might not be able to be in the next show, but it's not a big deal."

The experience, skills learned and things practiced are basically all so those in the troupe can reconnect with their inner child.

"When you watch little kids just make stuff up and say crazy stuff you're like, 'That's wild! Where'd you come-up with that?'" Skov explained. "Your brain can still do that. It's just that you're so used to being an adult that you're terrible at it."

For more information about Black Dirt Improv and Improv Lite, including show dates, ticket purchases and hiring the Black Dirt Improv troupe for events, visit: www.blackdirttheater.com/improv.