MopCo actors performing in “Chortle Combat.” Co-director Michael Burns said some formats the group tries don’t stick, but “Chortle Combat” is definitely a keeper. MopCo will perform “Chortle Combat” at Proctors Theater in Schenectady through the end of September.
Someone in the audience yelled, “Licorice!” and Kat Koppett thought quickly.
Licorice. Licorice. Did she have a prominent memory of licorice? A funny story about licorice?
She thought back to when she was a kid, when she would visit her grandmother in her tiny apartment in New York City. There was a bowl in the apartment, and it was always full of soft licorice.
“I would always kind of steal pieces of licorice,” Koppett said.
Aha. There was her story.
Koppett shared it during a recent performance at Proctors Theater with the Mop and Bucket Co., the improv group she co-directs. It was part of the group’s most recent show, “Chortle Combat,” a new format that has Koppett and co-director Michael Burns excited. During a recent interview, both also talked enthusiastically about four actors who recently joined the troupe.
The Mop and Bucket Co. moved into Proctors’ basement about a year ago, hosting weekly shows on Friday nights. There’s Theatersports, where teams of actors vie for the audience’s approval by turning suggestions into scenes, songs and stories; Spontaneous Broadway, in which musical numbers are inspired by audience suggestions, and Tapestry, which turns audience suggestions into “epic stories.”
And, for the last month or so, there’s been Chortle Combat. Koppett said the group was looking for a new format, one that would let the actors have more say in the show. That way, if the audience one night seemed to really be into musical numbers, the actors could incorporate more of those into the show. If “clever word games” proved to be a hit, there could be more of those.
The way Chortle Combat works is two actors -- it changes each time -- are chosen as directors. They share the remaining actors for the first part of the show, putting on skits that they hope will win the audience’s favor. Because when the first act wraps up, the audience votes on which director they liked better, and he or she gets to choose the format for the second half of the night.
The first act usually involves smaller, shorter skits. Koppett gave an example of a director who wants to focus on passion, “explore what people care about.” He or she might ask the crowd for 10 or 15 words, and then have the actors create scenes where they demonstrate passion for one of the words.
The second half, meanwhile, tends to be “longer-form” improv, meaning it’s one continuous story or play. The audience might be asked to suggest the title of a made-up musical, and then the actors spend the rest of the show creating it. An actor might have to tell a true story based on a word from the audience, as was the case when someone shouted “Licorice!” and Koppett took the audience back to her childhood visits to her grandmother’s. From there, she talked about her grandmother’s early life in Russia and how she eventually came to the United States. The story was a springboard for the other actors to “pull out stories, songs and scenes” for the rest of the show, Koppett said. One acted out someone sharing the history of his or her family. Another built a scene around the idea of being an outsider in a new place. One did a scene about drinking vodka.
The format, Koppett said, is fun for the actors because it gives them a chance to do so many different kinds of improv. “It’s a great training ground,” she said. “It helps them feel supported and successful.”
To that end, Mop and Bucket recently cast four new members, who will be getting their feet wet here and there for the next few weeks before a welcoming show in early October at Proctors. They had limited improv experience, but Burns said he and Koppett have been hoping to land each for a while.
“All four, when they auditioned, it was like, ‘Oh goodie, they’re as great as we thought,’” he said.
It’s not improv experience that’s important, he said. It’s more of an ability to be able to easily roll with the suggestions and storylines that make up a show.
“They’re smart people who know how to be in the moment. They’re just there,” Burns said, noting that the best improv actors “don’t try to be clever.”
“Good improv is to look at a situation and name the obvious,” he said. “You go with the obvious thing and make something out of it.”
Burns said people regularly watch Mop and Bucket shows and say, “Hey, I can do that.” And often, they’re right, he said, which is one of the reasons the company hosts regular classes, including drop-in classes on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.
Those who prefer to watch are reminded that even though MopCo advertises a show by the same name each week, the experience is always different.
“You really can come see a new show every Friday night,” Koppett said. “Different shows have different delights about them.”
Tickets for MopCo Underground at Proctors on Friday nights are $14 for general admission and $6 for students and seniors. For more information, visit www.mopco.org.