Local improv comedy group gaining traction in area
Improv comedy guru Del Close once gave this description of the medium: “Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.”
If that’s true, then a group of local actors is currently falling fast. Rail City Improv is a group of local theater staples, led by Jonathan O’Harrow, who have begun booking shows throughout Altoona, most frequently at McGarvey’s Bar and Grill in Juniata.
“They have been very well received,” owner Rich McGarvey said. “Full houses. People are telling me when they leave that their stomach hurts from laughing. Based on the first couple of shows, we booked them through next year. Next year we have them here every six to eight weeks.”
According to O’Harrow, the regular gigs at McGarvey’s have been a big help, as the group’s growing pains just get to be part of the show.
“The great thing about improv is that it’s usually as funny when it doesn’t go well as it is when it goes well,” he said. “It’s always funny. Watching someone kind of crash and burn can be kind of hilarious in improv.”
Rail City Improv began last spring, with a conversation between O’Harrow and co-worker Shari Routch at Penn State Altoona. At the time, Routch was president of the board of United Way Blair County and they had just come up with a signature fundraising event called Laugh United.
“So they knew they were going to bring in a main comedian, a headline act, but they wanted something as an opener,” O’Harrow said.
“She knew that I was involved with theater and that I’ve always been interested in improv and have always been a fan of (improv TV series) ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ So she asked if I had some friends who I might corral together and put together a group like that.”
O’Harrow pulled together three friends – Tara Enedy, Sam Wagner and Gina Volpe – and put together a show for the United Way event Laugh United in April 2013.
“We were not called Rail City Improv at the time,” O’Harrow said, with a laugh. “We just called ourselves ‘Improv!’ That’s how great we are at thinking on our feet!”
The group performed just once more, at Penn State Altoona’s Family Weekend, before again playing Laugh United this spring.
“After that performance was really when Tara took the initiative to go out and look for opportunities to perform,” O’Harrow said. “That’s when things really kind of took off.”
“It took a year to really get comfortable, to where we could book gigs,” Enedy said.
The group now consists of seven performers: O’Harrow, Enedy, Wagner, Gina Volpe, Karen Volpe, Mark Perehinec and Maria Perehinec. Enedy manages, with O’Harrow acting as creative director. Generally, a show consists of just four of the group performing at once.
Rail City Improv performances consist of a series of improv games. Most of the games will be familiar to fans
of any of the versions of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
“They’re always scenes that are set up with a strict kind of guideline,” O’Harrow said. “There’s one game that’s an audience favorite that’s called ‘Stand, Sit, Bend.’ There are three people in the scene and one person always has to be standing, one person always has to be sitting and one person always has to be bending or leaving over. The scene is based on an audience suggestion. If I’m sitting and stand up, someone else has to sit down immediately.”
The format of the show changes depending on the venue.
“When we’re at McGarvey’s, that’s a natural place to hand out pieces of paper (for the audience to write suggestions) because it’s not a huge room,” O’Harrow said.
“When we’re performing at Laugh United, you’ve got 400 people in the room. The first time around, we had people write out suggestions at the tables and it just got to be a hassle; going around collecting at least 400 pieces of paper got to be a little much.”
“Having the audience shout things, in a big room or a small room, works anywhere,” Enedy said.
As actors – all the performers are Altoona Community Theatre veterans – the group is used to improvising. But they say performing improv comedy comes with its own set of rules.
“The No. 1 rule is never say ‘no,'” O’Harrow said. “For example, if I walk into the scene and say, ‘I’m your doctor, here’s your prescription’ and Tara’s response is ‘Oh my god, you’re not a doctor, what are you doing here?’ Then she’s said, ‘no,’ to me, which eliminates the trust between us and confuses the audience.”
He said such a hiccup in a sketch may get a laugh but it would affect the rest of the show.
“I would say that the second most important rule is what they call the rule of ‘yes, and…’ So if I walk in and say, ‘I’m your doctor, here’s your prescription,’ she doesn’t just say, ‘Yes, you’re my doctor.’ She says, ‘yes’ and then she adds more information to it. So it’s the idea that no one actor is doing all the work.”
“You have to be willing to be brave about your choice and follow through,” Enedy said. “So if you’re impersonating a car, you have to be willing to make the noise and have your butt be the trunk.”
The group has committed to the project, but frequent rehearsals have helped – despite them appearing to be unnecessary.
“If you text friends and say, ‘I’m going to rehearse my improv,’ they say, ‘How can you practice being spontaneous?'” Enedy said. “It’s a skill, like anything else. You need to practice.”
Even in their trio of performances at McGarvey’s there has been improvement.
“The shows are running very smoothly,” McGarvey said. “They’re incorporating more games now, they’re getting more audience members involved. The crowds are growing and people are talking about it, asking when they’re coming back.”
Rail City Improv will next perform at McGarvey’s at 8 p.m. Oct. 25. The group is also looking for more bookings in the area. They have a Facebook page (search for “Rail City Improv”) and can be reached by email at email@example.com.
“One thing I would really like to see us find is a public venue that is not 21 or older,” O’Harrow said. “It’s very flexible. All you really need is some floor space and a couple of chairs.”
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.