RBIT at the Providence Improv Fest

As we take our last breath and hold it in anticipation of Twelfth Night’s opening, here’s part one of a two-part post on The Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe’s recent voyage to Providence, RI for the Providence Improv Festival.

We arrived in Providence the day of our show, on Saturday afternoon. We were scheduled to perform at 7:00pm at their AS220 theater. The festival had been running for two fulls days already, beginning on Thursday.

We checked into our hotel; nearly all of the troupe stayed at the excellent Hotel Providence (Seth stayed with a friend from the area – he grew up near Providence. He actually wrote the book on the place). After check-in and exploring the area, we grabbed some food and ambled over to the theater which is just a few blocks from the hotel in the “arts” district. There were lots of beautiful old buildings converted into galleries or performance spaces, including the festival’s spaces: AS220 and the Perishable Theater. These are just around the corner from Trinity Rep.

We arrived at AS220 and were greeted by a really sweet festival staffer, and the cool tech guy (Mike), who got us set up tech-wise and showed us the stage and backstage area (in the basement). We also met the frazzled but charming Mauro – the artistic director of the festival. He made us feel at home (we’re accustomed to the “frazzled and charming” types here at RBIT).

The space probably held around 80 people or so. It was bare when we arrived: a medium sized black room with a raised stage opposite the windows at the store front. We did tech as they set up the chairs.

We were paired to perform with a group from North Attleboro, MA, called Speed Of Thought Players. We first met their master-of-ceremonies type guy backstage: Christian. He’s known as “the Mouth”. Really nutty, witty guy – I figured he did stand-up, too. Anyway, he started shaping a plan with us on who was going on when, where and how, which was eventually overruled by Festival staff (Christian kept pointing out how he didn’t have a right to organize anything – yet, he had so many ideas. I liked him a lot).

Here’s how the festival told us it was going to work: each group had a half hour of stage time. Each audience member had a score card, which they would use to rate each group on a scale of 1 through 5. We weren’t competing directly with the Speed Of Thought Players exactly, but we were competing to get into the finals (six groups would be picked to compete in the final of the 25 or so total groups). The winner of the fest would be crowned “Best Improv Troupe in New England”. I think many of the audience members had seen several acts already, as most of them looked to be wearing festival lanyards with pases in them.

I think effectively turning every audience member into a critic took its toll psychologically on several members of our troupe of tender-hearted Berkshirians. More on that in a bit.

This is not the usual Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe gig, and we decided to play partly because it wasn’t our normal thing. Not that we didn’t miss the good cheer of our regular audiences in the Berkshires, but we were intrigued to play in front of a group of total strangers and see how it went. Plus – we were keen to see how we measured up against other groups. Living in the relative vacuum of Berkshire county we sometimes feel a little isolated (as others surely must), and we were looking to be de-pressurized, so to speak.

Our only supporters in Providence were Liz and Charlie (they rode with us), and a couple of friends of Seth’s from the area: Sarah and Allison. Between the four of them, they provided more emotional support than Mother Teresa would have (I heard she hated improv).

Anyways, I, personally, had a couple of beers before the show. It really helped me mellow out and enjoy watching the group who, it was decided, were going to perform ahead of us. It also gave me a little distance to see the terror in my fellow RBITers eyes when we witnessed them kick ass on the stage.

I’ll say again – this wasn’t a normal RBIT gig. Our time on stage was greatly compressed (we usually play for an hour and a half). We happened to be missing a key member of our troupe: Barby. A last minute flu bug laid her up – she was at home. That was a pretty big blow, as she’s one of the most reliably funny and talented players.

But there’s more – due to a technical issue, we could not play our *key* first game we normally play in our shows: the Dance. In the Dance, we play snippets of music of various kinds over the PA and each member of the troupe leads the other in a dance of their choosing (with other troupe members mirroring the “dancer”). We take turns as the dancer – when the music strikes us. This is an important first game in my opinion, because the energy is usually very high (we get a work-out) and it serves as an introduction to each member of the troupe through their dance. You can tell a lot about a person from watching them dance around goofily.

So, we were a bit nervous. We had to play against a really sharp group with the audience behind them while we had a couple of major factors well outside of our comfort zone. And RBIT is used to comfort. Luxury, even (take note, bookers).

We kept watching SOTP – I kept drinking. The audience kept laughing – I got another beer. I glanced at Lex’s shaking hands – swig. Frank gesturing frantically for a troupe huddle to try to reconfigure something in our act – chug. In my mind at the end of SOTP’s set, I could see each audience member laughing to themselves at the genius they had just witnessed and checking off the big “five-star” rating. Then they’d glance up from their card with a “let’s see if these guys can measure up” smirk, arms crossed, waiting.

Would this be the gig where we would be booed in earnest – actually booed? My mind careened wildly through every possible scenario of what could happen next: I would throw up on the stage. Frank would pee himself. Lisa would lose it and attack an audience member to feast on their flesh. Paul would hump something to climax. Seth would smile at a baby. Lex would remove a piece of clothing because she was too warm (never happens).

SOTP were finished their set, and started to exit the stage. Big audience ovation. We were poised on the house left behind the audience – like a crazy, drunken cat about to pounce on a much larger animal. Would we manage to hold on? To slay the beast?

Stay tuned for part 2.

One Response to “RBIT at the Providence Improv Fest”

  1. Johnny Mystic Says:

    So, I am really getting into this story and now I’m left waiting on pins and needles to find out what happens next…good story telling.

    Cannot wait for part 2!


    johnny mystic