Free-form fun

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  June 19, 2007
xt, but they might ask you to suggest, say, an exotic location, a couple of weird occupations, and a title for a musical comedy. Then they proceed to transmute the ridiculous into the hilariously sublime.
 
“I love it — it’s just really freeing,” says Mauro Hantman, the only remaining original member still in Improv Jones, and also founder of the Providence Improv Fest, which is hitting town June 27 through July 1. “You go in and you get to play anything and anybody,” he continues. “Anything can happen. You step on an improv stage and it’s this magical realm where anything is possible.”
 
Which is why Hantman has been doing improv since 1992, when 2nd Story Theatre co-founder Pat Hegnauer offered a workshop that spawned Improv Jones. Hantman certainly doesn’t do it for the money — the troupe’s tickets are only $5 at 10 pm shows every Thursday and Saturday night at Perishable Theatre — and he has a regular gig as a member of Trinity Repertory Company.
 
The Providence Improv Fest began four years ago as a way to get together the only three Rhode Island improv groups that were not based at a college. The following year they invited others from New York City, and last year added some from Chicago. This year those acts are back, and there are more from Minneapolis, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
 
“I was in Chicago recently and was talking to a group out there, and they were saying that the word on this fest is really positive,” Hantman says. “From an outside point of view, it seems like it’s grown very quickly in not very much time, and it’s got a sort of cachet out there.”
 
Improvisational comedy has been getting more popular around the country as audiences have grown and as troupes have spawned new improv acts. For example, Christa Crewdson, another founding member of Improv Jones, spun off Improv Jones Boston. Improv Jones members Melissa Bowler and Tim Thibodeau are in Unexpected Company and Out of the Gutter, and they have their own two-person show, Thibowla Virus. And since Bowler apparently doesn’t want to be mistaken for an underachiever, she also is in Inside Jokes.
 
Hantman is also, of course, an audience member. As such, he’s sometimes a particularly enthusiastic appreciator.
 
“Some of these groups do these crazy specialty things,” Hantman says. “You get Code Duello from Boston. They reenact the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. At every show they start with the duel and then they go back in time to see what led to that. They say, ‘We are going to solve the mystery!’ And it’s very funny. They dress in wigs and period costumes. It’s crazy, but it’s so ludicrous it’s sort of irresistible.”
 
When he’s up on the stage himself, when does he feel that an improv performance is really cooking?
 
“A good improv scene is not about somebody making very clear where they want to go and making it go somewhere, a good improv scene is when the performer is following a scene and letting it take them into places — and their partner’s doing it too,” he says. “It’s about listening. Listening not just to the words they’re saying but to every little thing they’re putting out. Somebody does a gesture with their body or holds themselves in a certain way and you have to be aware of that. It’s not that you have to get their intention, but you have to get something from it, because that’s what they’re giving you to react to.”
 
Hantman had to go. It was getting close to 10 pm and downstairs an audience was assembling to watch him and his Improv Jones cohorts enjoy themselves trying for what he’d just described.
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