Review: ‘Underground Rooftop Coffee House’ at Arts Collective @ HCC

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Thursday, September, 22, 2016, marked the beginning of the 22nd Season for Howard Community College’s Arts Collective. Thursday night’s performance of the Underground Rooftop Coffee House presented by Arts Collective’s “What Improv Group?!” (W.I.G.), HCC’s Humanities Department, and Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) was another step in expanding these young artists’ horizons to include not only poetry but dance, photography and music, in collaboration with artists both on- and off-campus.

Left: Dancers, Anja Young and Ada Satterfield. Middle: Poet, Nsikan Akpan. Right: W.I.G actor, Noelle Ford with Courtney Branch (audience participant). Photo by Bruce F. Press.
Left: Dancers Anja Young and Ada Satterfield. Middle: Poet Nsikan Akpan. Right: W.I.G actor Noelle Ford with Courtney Branch (audience participant). Photo by Bruce F. Press.

Under the direction of S. G. Kramer and Daniel Johnston, W.I.G.’s 2016-2017 cast features a great ensemble that includes “veterans” from previous seasons and several new actors: Douglas Beatty, Jordan Colea, JP John Desmond, Noelle Patricia Ford, Doug Goodin, Chania Hudson, Daniel Johnston, Thomas Matera, Emma K. McDonnell, Apryl Motley, Lauren Tobiason, Lauren Blake Williams, and Sierra Young. All the performances were clever, witty and spontaneous, and the actors were poised and articulate.

What distinguished this particular event was the layered inclusion of multiple artistic elements to inspire and empower the improvisations. The experience began, actually, as you walked towards the building, with dancers (directed by Chelsea Nicole Green and including Heather Cramer, Kylie Giglio,  Jeffrey Mensah, Ada Satterfield, Lea Williams, and Anja Young) creating various forms among the trees and with each other. Upstairs,  at show time, the dancers leapt exuberantly through the audience to signal the beginning of the event. W.I.G. engaged in a series of improvisational challenges that alternated some favorite activities, such as “Plot Points” and “Musical W.I.G.s,” and its interactions with audience members to provide ideas and objects for scenes, with responses to original poetry, visual art, and a spontaneous “post-it” poem.

Left: W.I.G. actor, Doug Goodin. Middle: Tara Hart and S.G. Kramer welcomes the sold-out audience. Right: Dancer, Jeffrey Mensah. Photo by Bruce F. Press.
Left: W.I.G. actor, Doug Goodin. Middle: Tara Hart and S.G. Kramer welcomes the sold-out audience. Right: Dancer Jeffrey Mensah. Photo by Bruce F. Press.

A chair of HoCoPoLitSo and of HCC’s Humanities Department, Professor Tara Hart in her second year of facilitating the partnership of these organizations with Arts Collective; she works closely with Kramer and Johnston to bring creative writers affiliated with HoCoPoLitSo and this year with HCC’s literary and arts magazine The Muse into the world of W.I.G. These collaborations provide the actors with opportunities to expand their improvisational horizons through the inspiration of original literary pieces. For this year’s Coffee House and its new inclusion of the visual arts, Hart sought Muse contributors who had the gift for “ekphrasis,” in that they had written poems explicitly inspired by visual arts, such as particular paintings or sculpture.

After introductions and a warm-up of Fall Activities performed by the company, Michelle Kreiner read her poem “Like Sculptor’s Clay,” and the actors responded with a creative improv about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. There would be three more poems that night, read well by their authors.

Tim Singleton recited his poem “Insomnia,” which inspired a scene about a family at breakfast time, and Sylvia Lee’s poem “Emileh Bell” conjured up a piece about a birthday party and a rebellious daughter.

The last piece, Nsikan Akpan’s “Pumpkins,” led to an improv about a little boy and his grandfather at Halloween. Finally, in an interesting take on improvisational writing, the poets themselves left the performance space to compose an original poem in fifteen minutes, using works and phrases the audience posted around the lobby during intermission. The final product, entitled “Imagination Society,” inspired a scene performed by the W.I.G. actors about coworkers and an antidote to an epidemic.

Left: W.I.G. actors Chania Hudson, Jordan Colea. Middle: Coffee House Director of Dance and Performer. Right: W.I.G. actor, Apryl Motley. Photo by Bruce F. Press.
Left: W.I.G. actors Chania Hudson and Jordan Colea. Middle: Coffee House Director of Dance and Performer. Right: W.I.G. actor, Apryl Motley. Photo by Bruce F. Press.

Four photographs taken by local and campus artists Amber Kettenhofen, Jim O’Connor, Leta Dunham, and Paul Goeth, were projected for all to view for a few moments, without titles, before the actors responded creatively to the qualities and feelings evoked by the images with various interesting and relatable topics such as campfires, Jeopardy, cake baking, and yard sales.

As always, there was plenty of audience interaction and the final piece invited audience members to come up and pair with an actor for a round robin of “How-To’s,”learning to do different tasks suggested by audience members.

The Coffee House was only laying the groundwork for a remarkable season ahead, which will include three more shows by W.I.G. ?! around Halloween, The Return of Hallowscream, and Valentine’s Day, Valentine Affair, (most of which will involve HCC’s Humanities Department and HoCoPoLitSo), A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play in December, a Three- Night Improv Festival (Improvaganza) in the early Spring, and finally another Original Devised Play in June.

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Please go to HCCAC’s website for more information. For tickets, call the box office at (433) 518-1500, or purchase them tickets.

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