Five veteran Las Cruces actors have formed an improvisation group and will have their first public performance Friday, May 14, 7:30 p.m. in the courtyard at Black Box Theatre (BBT), 430 N. Main St. downtown.
The Super-Secret Improv Show (SSIS) was founded by Josh Taulbee in 2020 and also includes Erin Wendorf, Cassandra Galban, Rachel Thomas-Chappell and Teddy Aspen-Sanchez.
Three of the actors have theater degrees. Aspen-Sanchez is also a graduate of an improv school in Massachusetts and Thomas-Chappell is a graduate of the Second City improv school in Chicago.
Collectively, the five actors have performed in more than 100 plays, including productions at virtually every theater venue in Las Cruces. They also variously have experience as directors, play and skit writers and set designers. Aspen-Sanchez is also a standup comedian.
Aspen-Sanchez has wanted to form an improv group in Las Cruces since about 2007, he said. The idea finally came to fruition during a conversation he had with Galban and Taulbee while the three were performing together in Eugene Ionesco’s “The Killing Game” at BBT in early 2020.
They added Thomas-Chappell and Wendorf to the group, and had time for a couple of in-person rehearsals before Covid-19 public health orders put New Mexico into lockdown, closing theaters and cancelling live productions.
SSIS rehearsed via Zoom for more a year, only returning to in-person rehearsals – following state public health guidelines – when New Mexico returned to yellow status in the state’s red-yellow-green-turquoise tiered risk system.
Improv has no script and often derives its performance subjects from audience members. It likely traces its roots to ancient Rome about 400 B.C. Modern improv games began as children’s exercises created by American John Dewey (1859-1952) about 1916. These short-form improv games are familiar to many from the television series “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” which began airing on American TV in 1998.
“Improv forces me into the moment in a therapeutic way,” Galban said. “Being put on the spot and having to think of something exaggerates life and makes everything else so much easier.”
Improv is “really open,” Wendorf said.
It’s easy to be typecast in theater, but through improv she can “enjoy being a person I’m not,” Wendorf said.
“It’s a unique experience we get to share,” Taulbee said. Whatever the group creates “wasn’t ever seen before and probably won’t ever be replicated.”
Improv to Thomas-Chappell is “making fun, making magic,” she said. “You trust your fellow players. You know they’ve got your back.”
For Aspen-Sanchez, good improv is about telling a story more than anything else, including comedy.
“I always wanted to be a storyteller,” he said.
Most people are familiar with the short-form improv that is featured in “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” Aspen-Sanchez said. The improv games SSIS played during a recent rehearsal at BBT included “The Actor’s Nightmare: Cockroaches,” “Foreign Film: Swedish Film,” “Film and Theater Style” and “Double Entendre.” There are many others.
Aspen-Sanchez plans to introduce long-form improv to Las Cruces audiences. It is less structured than short-form, he said, and often adds tragedy and drama as well as comedy. Like short-form, it is completely unscripted and relies on suggestions from the audience.
The long-form session that was part of the recent rehearsal had Keanu Reeves and the game Jenga as its audience-suggested themes. Most long-form improv runs 30-60 minutes, Aspen-Sanchez said.
In either format, improv gets an actor’s energy up, Thomas-Chappell said.
“The audience will feed it back to you,” she said. “They get on that journey with you and can’t wait to see what you pull out your hat next.”
Unlike standup comedy, Aspen-Sanchez said improv audiences are pulling for the performers to succeed. “It’s their ideas, and they want them to work,” he said.
Trying to be funny is a mistake that many improv actors make early on, SSIS members said.
“That’s not honest,” Thomas-Chappell said.
There is “a mental state of being in the moment that I find in improv acting,” Galban said. Staying in the moment is “a muscle we exercise in improv class.”
Improv also makes actors better performers in scripted shows, all the SSIS members said.
“You pay attention” to the other actors, Wendorf said. Good improv about “listening to your partner.”
The May 14 performance is $10 per person, but seating is limited. Call BBT at 575-523-1223 for information. The show will be suitable for all family members. Actors will wear microphones.