Improv comes to Tupelo

Scripts? The West of Shake Rag Improv Troupe doesn’t need any scripts. Improv is short for improvise, which means to come up with something on the spur of the moment. A written script would defeat the purpose of creating and performing in the here and now.
“I love the immediacy,” said Chris Counts, a member of the troupe. “It moves fast and you can be instantly creative.”
Counts used to perform at Second City in Chicago, the Mecca of improvisational and sketch comedy that helped launch the careers of Bill Murray, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
“A lot of people know more than they think they do,” said Carlton Wall, West of Shake Rag’s co-founder. “’Saturday Night Live’ is sketch comedy, but most of the alumni you can name are established improv performers.”
Improv can be found in “mockumentary” movies, like “Best in Show” and “Borat,” and the
television show, “Whose Line is It Anyway?,” as well as more surprising places.
“You have people in church groups who do improv,” Counts said, “and they have teachers at corporate events.”
With the support of Tupelo Community Theatre, the 11 members of West of Shake Rag Improv Troupe have brought the art form to Tupelo. The group’s first performance will be Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Lyric Theatre.
“If I’d known I was going to get addicted to it,” Wall said, “I’m not sure I would’ve done it. I love it.”

In truth, improv isn’t all thought up on the spot. There are games that offer structure for the performers’ creativity.
In “Die,” the audience suggests a situation, and five characters invent a story. At the end of the scene, one actor is voted off the team by the audience.
The remaining members try to tell the whole story until there’s one performer jumping all over the stage, trying to remember dialogue that was thought up a few minutes earlier.
“Everything works on ‘Yes, And,’” said Caroline Upthegrove, co-founder. “No matter what’s given to you, you say, ‘Yes,’ and go with it.”
Through months of practice, troupe members learn to trust each other and pay attention, or their scenes will fall flat.
“Listening is one of the biggest things,” Upthegrove said. “That’s crucial.”
The purpose is to make the audience laugh, but maybe you can see why improv’s focus on communication makes it useful at corporate retreats.
“Since I want to be a teacher,” said group member Marley Maharrey, “this will probably help me think on my feet in front of a class.”

The Aug. 29 performance will be a PG show that’ll last about an hour and 45 minutes with intermission.
People in the audience will be asked to share their ideas. Some might find themselves invited on stage, so bring an open mind and don’t worry about learning any lines. You’ll think of something.
“The thing about it is a lot of the time reality is funnier than making things up,” said Josh Green, troupe member. “When you’re doing this, a lot of reality comes out. It can be amazing.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Click video to hear audio