Standing in a circle Sunday in the basement of Dillingham, eight students contort their faces and shout random words and phrases at each other as part of their weekly routine.
“Whoooop!” one student shouts to her neighbor, waving her arms frantically.
“Ziiiing!” another yells as he dives toward the next person in the circle.
“Ah-ooga!” the group shouts at each other, jumping up and slapping their knees.
The noises that arise from Dillingham every Sunday afternoon may seem silly to some, but to the members of the Acahti Players, it’s just another typical practice session.
The improv acting troupe, whose name is “Ithaca” spelled backward, was formed in 2004 by Dan Stermer ’07. It is one of three comedy groups on campus but the only one to perform long-form sketches and comedic scenes. IC Stand-up and IC Comedy Club perform stand-up or short-form sketches.
Junior Lawrence Collerd, president of the group, said he participated in many improv groups in his hometown of Chicago, which is generally regarded as the birthplace of long-form comedy.
Collerd became involved with the Acahti Players early in his freshmen year but said at first he was nervous about performing alongside the group’s seasoned student comedians.
“I was really timid the first time,” he said. “It’s a really intimidating art form, but eventually I got more at ease with the process.”
After literally being pulled onstage at a comedy festival with the group, Collerd said he quickly got used to being in front of a crowd and making a fool of himself.
Collerd said group members meet once a week to practice, playing many short-form games to help sharpen their wit. The players are planning to hold a show after Thanksgiving break but have not determined a date.
During last Sunday’s open improv session, a game of “slow-motion Olympics” featured an intense dusting competition — which quickly escalated into an all-out brawl. While the two competitors smacked each other with fake feather dusters, other troupe members provided commentary as a giddy drunk and her less-than-thrilled co-host.
Collerd said the group tries to be funny but also focuses on building interesting characters, creating dynamic relationships and making the scene exciting for an audience.
“[Short-form] games help you focus on certain aspects that can help improve your long-form,” he said. “Developing different characters can be difficult, but it can also make the scene that much more interesting.”
The art of improvisational theater dates back to 16th century commedia dell’arte street performers in Italy. While short-form improv scenes typically last less than five minutes and have a particular goal or set of rules — think “Whose Line is it Anyway?” — long-form scenes are entirely invented from the performers’ imaginations and can last up to 20 or 30 minutes.
Collerd said he prefers doing longer scenes even though it is more work because the audience’s heightened reaction is a better payoff.
“The biggest laughs don’t happen when you tell a knock-knock joke,” he said. “The funniest stuff is when you’re sitting around with friends, telling stories and those stories have time to evolve into something funny.”
Sophomore David Reynolds, who is new to the group this year, said performing in front of an audience without a script and “essentially going in blind” makes performing a challenge. At performances, the group asks the audience for a one-word suggestion to start them off, but then invents scene after scene without any help.
“I’m a wreck before shows,” Reynolds said. “You’re basically just thrown out there with one suggestion for an entire hour.”
Senior Acahti member Sean Golan said the tight-knit group — currently seven regular members — makes it easier to take chances.
“You definitely have to trust the people around you and that they’ll be able to come in and justify what you’re doing, even if you have no idea what is going on,” he said.
Collerd said the group originally consisted mostly of theater students but has expanded to include students from all academic backgrounds. Collerd is a writing major.
Though long-form improv may be more challenging to create, Collerd said the satisfaction of performing is the same as short-form.
“We really pride ourselves [on] creating stories that are interesting to watch, even if they weren’t funny,” he said. “Rather than just being funny, we really want people to be interested and enjoy watching us.”
Acahti Players hold improv sessions open to all students from 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays in Dillingham Center.