‘Underground Rooftop Coffee House: Voices from the Edge’ at Arts Collective at Howard Community College

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Opening their 2015-2016 season, Howard Community College’s Arts Collective presented an evening of improvisations by their own improv group called What Improv Group?!?! or W.I.G?!?! This troupe is performing throughout the year under the direction of Susan G. Kramer and Daniel Johnston.

Top row, left to right: Thomas Matera, Daniel Johnston, and Terri Laurino. Middle row, left to right: Shannon Willing, Daniel Johnston, Apryl Motley, Diego Esmolo, Douglas Beatty, Doug Goodin, and Scott Lichtor. Bottom Row: Autumn Kramer, Noah Bird, and Sierra Young.
Top row, left to right: Thomas Matera, Daniel Johnston, and Terri Laurino. Middle row, left to right: Shannon Willing, Daniel Johnston, Apryl Motley, Diego Esmolo, Douglas Beatty, Doug Goodin, and Scott Lichtor. Bottom Row: Autumn Kramer, Noah Bird, and Sierra Young. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Thursday night was the first time the group performed in front of an audience. They auditioned in June and began the rehearsal and training process July through September. The ensemble consists of seasoned performers from the community as well as younger students from the college. Many have performed in Arts Collective productions as well, as well as in other theatrical groups in the community.

Writers: Katy Day (poet), James Karantonis (prose writer), Tara J. Hart (partnership collaborator), S.G. Kramer (co-director, Nsikan Akpan (poet), and Daniel Johnston (co-director). Photo by Bruce Press Photography.
Writers and Co-Directors: Katy Day (poet), James Karantonis (prose writer), Tara J. Hart (partnership collaborator), S.G. Kramer (co-director), Nsikan Akpan (poet), and Daniel Johnston (co-director). Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Arts Collective’s W.I.G. will be partnering twice this season with HCC’s Creative Writers and the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, known as HoCoPolLitSo – a 40 year-old not-for-profit literary arts organization and represented by their Co-Chair, Tara J. Hart. Their next partnered even will take place in April, 2016. The September 10th program featured the writing of 3 literary artists as well as the works of two of the troupe’s members.

As tonight was a Coffee House Format with free hot beverages and pastries, the opening improv scene included the first of four “Coffee Shop” improv scenes featured throughout the evening. The audience was asked to assist in deciding whether the actors would portray friends, family, co-workers, or strangers, until all choices were completed.

The second scene was an interpretation of a poem written by Apryl Motley, a member of the troupe, that she wrote at age 11 called, “How Rainbows Come About.” In it the gods decide how to create rainbows. Noah Bird and Sierra Young played the Mt. Olympus immortals in a very humorous fashion.

The audience was then asked for an object to focus the action on for the next scene. An umbrella was chosen – which served as a baton in a marching band. Tom Matera and Autumn Kramer sharply played the bumbling marchers.

One of the other recurrent themes was ‘actions you do by yourself or teaching another person how-to do something,’ again selected by the audience. Humorous skits on taking a selfie, ironing, golfing, setting up a confusing television remote, putting on make-up, and riding a bike were performed. The real standout was the golf sketch with Apryl Motley and Terri Laurino. As in many of the sketches, men played women and vice versa, as well as older members of the cast playing children, and vice versa. Terri, a female, played the husband, and Apryl played the not very interested wife.

The poem by Nsikan Akan called “The Bee Keepers” was the next interpretive piece about an unmarried couple dealing with indiscretions. It was deftly performed by Diego Esmolo and Shannon Willing.

Other pieces performed were James Karantonis’ piece, “The Prize”, about a military hospital in Pennsylvania dealing with enlisted men with psychiatric problems during the Vietnam War. There The Red Cross hosts a dance and invites local high school girls. The actors in “The Prize” focused more on the high schoolers’ fears and preconceptions than he had intended. One of the two high school girls was insightfully played by Doug Goodin who not only is not a girl – but not of high school age. According to Karantonis working with the troupe’s interpretations have taught him that “You have to put your ideas away.”

Later there was a poem by Katy Day – “On the Way to the Roller Skating Rink.” This dealt with parents allowing their children to learn by failure. The two pieces were more dramatic than comedic and had more pathos than other scenes. Douglas Beatty did an outstanding job as a young woman off to college standing up to her father (Daniel Johnston) in an interpretation of the Day poem.

There was also a scene called Actor’s Nightmare where one actor had a script that was kept secret from the troupe and the other had to improvise the other lines. The script was actually written by Daniel Johnston who not only directs but also performs in W.I.G.?!?!.

The play, House, will receive a workshop production presented by The Arts Collective in the spring. Scott Lichtor read the script, while Terri Laurino responded via improv as the clueless actor.

One improv scene was based on two famous novels shouted out by the viewers: Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. At a discussion later we would learn that “buttons” are where the direction of the plot changes – and “landmines” are where the point is made and the action is complete. A great example of a landmine was when Laurino, during the Moby Dick improv, mimed a lion fish. All that was needed to make the point was her turning fingers to the fish’s mane, and saying, “I’m a lion fish.”

In the Great Gatsby piece they had a teacher (Goodin) telling his class about Fitzgerald’s first inspiration for his novel called The Ordinary Gatsby, and a child ventriloquist (Matera) performing with his dummy (Motley) was made even more humorous as the boy moved his lips while the dummy spoke.

The final set brought audience members up for another round of “how-to” with most of the troupe working with individuals working with the volunteers. It was a chaotic – but humorous ending.

These are just highlights from the evening. Although some skits were more memorable than others, the quality remained high throughout.

The entire cast, writing team and directors. Photo by Bruce Press Photography.
The entire cast, writing team and directors. Photo by Bruce F. Press Photography.

Again, this was the first performance. As Apryl Motley told us at a discussion held after the event, “As you work with each other, you build up a high level of trust.” The next performance on Dec. 11, 2015 should be even better.

Note: Take a look at the Underground Rooftop Coffee House album on Arts Collective’s Facebook Page.

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Underground Rooftop Coffee House: Voices from the Edge played for one-night-only on Thursday, September 10, 2015 at Arts Collective@HCC. For more information on their future performances go to their website. For tickets, call the box office at (433) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

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Arts Collective @ HCC’s ‘Underground Rooftop Coffee House: Voices from the Edge’ This Thursday, September 10, 2015 at 7 PM by Susan G. Kramer.

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