The Forgetful SquirrelsJun 29, 2023 12:49PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
A banker, a farmer, a nurse, a salesman, a software developer, a retiree, two managers and two teachers walk into a barn.
That’s not the convoluted start of some newfangled joke, but a brief description of people participating in a recent rehearsal of the Forgetful Squirrels, an improv troupe that for 10 years has been rehearsing in a converted barn near Bay View.
Its performance schedule has varied over the years, but there’s an easy-to-remember run going on through September: 7 p.m. first Fridays at the Newark Arts Alliance, with shows the next night at the Funny Farm, which is what they call their Bay View barn. Tickets to the Newark shows are $10. Tickets at the Funny Farm are free, with donations accepted.
For details, go to the group’s new Facebook page, titled Forgetful Squirrels Improv, or email [email protected]. In addition to improv, shows may include stand-up comedians, original sketches, short films or other entertainment that include Squirrels and participants in its Elkton Acting Meetup on Meetup.com.
The Meetup group meets Tuesday nights and is open to anyone interested in improv, sketch comedy or other creative ventures. Membership in the Forgetful Squirrels is by invitation only. “Those who attend on Tuesdays may be invited to join, and all are encouraged to attend and enjoy our shows,” said Connie Regan, who co-founded the group with barn owner Mike Collins.
Its members are having fun and building skills that can help in their vocations (companies do hire improv troupes to boost creativity and teamwork) and their avocations (such as acting and playwriting).
“It’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do,” Collins said. “It’s a mistake to think the audience is with you. They’re ahead of you. Improv requires you to listen, be in the moment and be quick. ”
And hopefully funny.
At first, Improv on Rye
The troupe dates back to 2011, when Collins and Reagan met at an audition for Chapel Street Players in Newark. They later studied improv together and decided they wanted to create an improv troupe. “We need a space,” Reagan said. “I’ll build you one,” Collins replied.
So he converted a barn that he had used as a retail space for his greenhouse business, Turtle Hill Farm. The 28- by 40-foot Funny Farm Theater has seating for two dozen; a 9½- by 13½-foot stage where a dozen performers can squeeze in, like clowns in a tiny circus car; a sound and light booth; and a green room for performers awaiting time on stage. An accessory building holds a restroom.
They began performing in 2013 as Improv on Rye (troupes often have attention-grabbing names, such as the Rubber Chickens, improvving at the University of Delaware since 1997), switched to the Fun Addicts as membership changed and switched again to the Forgetful Squirrels for the same reason.
Over the years, the group has grown beyond improv to incorporate sketches that they write and standup comedy routines. They just started a YouTube channel and are looking into podcasting.
Improv by definition involves dialogue made up on the spur of the moment, but often with prompts, games and rules.
Some prompts come from asking the audience off-the wall questions, such as “What is the one thing you never want to see green?” or “What support group doesn’t exist but should?”
Humor from A to Z
Prompts start various games, and the Squirrels have more than 50 in their repertoire. They include Alphabet Story (each line must begin with a different letter of the alphabet), Ding! (a scene grows increasingly bizarre as actors edit their last lines), Press Conference (one trouper has done something notable but has no idea what) and Start to Finish (the audience supplies texts from their phones for a first and last line, and the troupe connects them).
Short-form games fall into three types, Regan said: games with characters speaking comical gibberish, which may or may not be “translated” into even more comical English; do-it-again games where repetition and variation make for comedy (e.g., Ding!); and guessing games, where the humor occurs because some performers don’t know what other performers do (like Press Conference, or the party game Forehead Detective).
The rules of improv include “yes, and” (accept what another character says so the scene progresses), “and scene” (what a performer says when the scene achieves closure or some deadly opposite) and “don’t be afraid to fail.”
A recent rehearsal began with the troupe members warming up their minds, tapping their bodies to keep a beat, and challenging each other with outlandish prompts, such as wallpaper designs (“scratch and sniff,” suggested Dave Breen), failed Walmart campaigns (“Our sweatshop workers can now afford to shop here,” suggested Nick Keresztury) and weird hairstyling substances (“Elmer’s glue,” suggested Trebs Thompson, knowing that’s a real – but funny – thing).
They ended this rehearsal practicing long-form improv, where the form – say, a dinner party or a train station waiting room – lets people to interact in varied ways. Their Thanksgiving scenario began with Alzheimer’s and cycled through veganism, sexual identity and a one-legged dancer named Lucky.
“What matters is the relationships between characters,” Regan said in the post-mortem, also calling for deeper characterization.
“And we build a story,” added Keresztury. Hopefully a funny one.