2009 Performing Arts MasterMinds: The Improv Trick

Aug 26, 2009 at 4:00 am

On a stretch of Cherokee Street not far from the taquerias, hipster resale shops and custom screen-printing storefronts, sits the oddly named Cherokee Business Incubator. The open-air office space houses the African Bazaar and served as a bunker for Barack Obama's election campaign. And for the past year, the Incubator has been home to the Improv Trick, a group dedicated to teaching and presenting improvisational comedy in St. Louis. But as befits an organization housed in an Incubator, the Improv Trick aims to hatch more than just a new batch of funny people. The troupe hopes to hasten the rebirth of St. Louis' long-dormant tradition of improv comedy and foster a community of actors, writers and supporters of the comedic arts.

Founded four years ago by St. Louis improv maestro Bill Chott (who will be profiled in next week's Riverfront Times), the Improv Trick offers classes for adults and children in the art of on-the-fly, participatory comedy. Because Chott splits his time between here and Los Angeles (where he regularly works in film and television), Marc Pruter and Doug Golden oversee the Trick's day-to-day operations. As you might expect from die-hard comedians, both men approach the job with plenty of wisecracks, but their occasionally caustic sense of humor belies the heart it takes to fuel a labor of love.

Golden, a lifelong St. Louisan, got involved with improv in the 1980s, working alongside Chott in a troupe called the Network. He teaches improv, standup and sketch-writing classes at the Improv Trick and toils as a performer in the troupe's stage shows.

Pruter runs the operations side of the company, using skills he honed over many years in Austin, Texas, where he led several improv troupes, ran a theater and organized the world's largest improv and sketch-comedy festival. Though he has been in St. Louis for only two years, Pruter is well aware of the city's legacy as a seminal hotbed for improv, dating back to the heyday of the 1950s, when improv pioneer Del Close and the Compass Players packed 'em in.

"The goal is to revive improv in St. Louis," says Pruter. "St. Louis actually does have a very old history — and it's a very good history — of improvisation, going back to Gaslight Square. A lot of the people who went on to found Second City in Chicago actually started here in St. Louis."

The Second City — the improv proving ground that grew out of the Compass Players and forged an eye-popping roster of big names, from Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Peter Boyle and Harold Ramis (a St. Louisan) in the '60s to Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and George Wendt in the '70s to — well, you get the idea — serves as the benchmark for most improv groups, and the Improv Trick seeks to use the Chicago model as it continues to grow. (Chott himself is a Second City alum.) Still, there's a palpable sense of hometown pride in restoring St. Louis' reputation.

"Chicago has a very rich improv history. In St. Louis it pretty much died," says Pruter. "There's been a little bit here, a little bit there, but as far as an ongoing, solid improv community, there really hasn't been much opportunity for people who are drawn to this kind of art form. Bill, in particular, had to go to Chicago because there wasn't anything like that here. The goal of Improv Trick is for people in St. Louis, especially people who are just getting started, to be able to do that in St. Louis."

Through the classes offered at the Improv Trick, students can learn the finer points of improv, in particular the discipline of working with others onstage. Unlike standup comedy, improv lives and dies on the interactions of the troupe, and that interplay only works if everyone is on the same page. While improv may not be a science, there are guidelines that Pruter and Golden stress to their students.

"There are basic rules of improv, and part of the reason they exist is to reinforce whatever you're doing onstage," Golden imparts. "Saying 'yes,' or acceptance, is a big thing in improv. If you accept everything you get, you have a lot to work with, for one thing. For another, sometimes it's a ridiculous thing, and if you accept it when people don't expect you to and make something of it, you're going to be funny, whether you are innately funny or not."

The concept is the same for young and old alike, but Golden says kids tend to pick up the cues more easily than their older counterparts. Being located on Cherokee Street has given the Improv Trick a target demographic to work with; while the workshop is happy to teach school kids from all over the area, Pruter and Golden have paid special attention to the children in their own back yard.

"We try to focus on our kids in the Cherokee area," says Pruter. "A lot of the kids that would be considered at-risk really don't have discretionary cash to take programs. So we offer scholarships for kids like that. The idea is that there are a lot of things you could do with your spare time — some good things and some bad things. There tend to be very few arts programs for kids like this; you may find a swimming pool or a sports program, but there tends to be a lack of arts education."

Regardless of socioeconomic background, the rules of the game are the same. Pruter likens the experience to other artistic disciplines. "Before you ever become a pianist, you practice scales; that's a tool. Before you ever write, you learn the alphabet. The classes are the language of improvisation, and some of them are really counterintuitive. What we are teaching is how to work together — you are working in an ensemble group — so what you are learning is the skill set so that you can effortlessly work with people."

If that sounds like it might fly in other aspects of one's life, that's no coincidence. The Improv Tricksters believe their work in the classroom can have relevance beyond the stage. The basic tenets of improv — listening, teamwork, respect — are skills that don't just make good comedians; they make good human beings. (A significant number of the group's students come from the corporate world.) Says Pruter: "What we teach is: You're building something together."

For now Pruter, Golden and the rest of the crew stage weekly shows in their basement theater space on Cherokee and at venues such as the nearby pub the Stable, which hosts Stagematch, a weekly wrestling-themed comedy smackdown between Improv Trick students.

But Pruter has his sights set on something more permanent: a dedicated theater space for the Improv Trick. This, he hopes, will encourage other groups to embrace St. Louis' legacy and make improv a viable institution once again.

"It's time for a resurgence," Pruter insists. "This is something we'd like to bring back, because certain aspects of improv have their roots in St. Louis, and not any other city can claim it. We gave it up!" he laughs. "Chicago stole it!"

To learn more about Marc, Doug and the rest of the Improv Trick, visit www.riverfronttimes.com/microsites/improv-trick

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