Dead Parrots Society: Improv troupe 20 years strong

Dead Parrots Society web

by Lindsay Hilton

It isn’t just about getting laughs for Dead Parrots Society (DPS), the improv troupe at Western Washington University, although that is one of the group’s primary goals. Every time DPS players go on stage, they also aspire to tell a story using long form improv as their vehicle.

“Long form improv addresses the innate human instinct to tell stories,” said Emma Campbell, artistic director of DPS and a senior at WWU. “It places improv into a more narrative setting so we can follow people and relationships as they build an environment.”

DPS was created in 1998 by a group of WWU students who were passionate about the art of improv and wanted to share it with others. Today, DPS carries forward the founding members’ quest to practice and teach improv, performing regularly on- and off-campus and offering guidance to hopeful actors and comics.

In addition to Campbell, the current group also includes Neco Pacheaco, a junior who serves as business manager for DPS; Ruben Gomez, a junior and DPS’ education director; Liv Mangione, a junior who handles publicity and outreach; Aiken Muller, a junior who manages the group’s social media; Bailey Ellis, a senior; Levi Collins, a freshman; and Carly Lant, a sophomore.

Improv is a type of theater defined by an unscripted or improvised performance, most often comedy-based. The characters and plot are created by the players (with input from the audience) and the action unfolds in real time. The format may be pre-determined but the dialogue and most other elements are not known until the action is in full throttle. As with other forms of comedy, there are traditional rules that come into play, including beats and callbacks.

The most well known type of improv is short form, which unfolds over a short length of time and may incorporate several mini stories or skits into one performance. Upfront Theatre’s Ryan Stiles (of Whose Line is It Anyway fame) is often viewed as the poster boy for short form improv.

Long form improv, as the name would suggest, takes more time to develop the story, often unfolding over an hour or longer. It concentrates on the development of relationships and environments within one narrative rather than several short ones. As Campbell said, it’s more of “a slow burner.”

Many types of comedy can morph into others. Some successful improv skits may establish the characters and plotline that evolve into full-fledged sketches on other media. The art of improv is considered de rigueur for many successful comics, and the performance art has paved the way for many rollicking stand-up skits and TV shows—including Portlandia and Seinfeld—that rely heavily on improvisation.

“Improv is a really amazing place to initiate comedic thought,” Campbell said. She goes on to name several superstar comedians who cut their teeth on improv, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, and Donald Glover. DPS has also produced several successful alum from its ranks, including Rashawn Nadine Scott, who is the main stage performer at The Second City, and Kris Erickson, the artistic director at Upfront Theatre.

It takes a special kind of comic to perform improv. Most comedians plan their routine well in advance of their performance, taking time to test it out on friends, family, open mic nights and whoever else is willing to listen. If some element of their performance doesn’t work, they can always tweak it before the real deal.

But with improv, there is no real rehearsal, no do-over. An improv actor learns his or her performance was not a hit the hard way.

That said, there are things improv performers do to train. They will often flex their listening and patience skills during practice, and many performers use that time to hone their confidence. DPS likes to test out the formats of the show during their weekly practice sessions while gauging the chemistry between performers.

“Improv is a trust-based art form,” Campbell said. “You have to be comfortable and confident with the people you are on stage with, so our rehearsals are more to build trust than anything else.”

The group meets once a week to work on material for their shows. They also host a weekly rehearsal that is open to the public, during which DPS members observe newcomer performances and offer them feedback and advice.

“And if we see that they are ready, have passion, and will be a supportive member of the performance group, we will call them up,” Campbell said of the group’s process for adding new members to DPS.

“It is interesting how everyday interactions with others can inform characters and environments. Pulling elements from real life can really benefit character work in scenes because the character itself becomes more realistic to yourself and the audience,” Campbell added.

DPS will be working with the Upfront Theatre and other improv teams from Washington and Canada as part of its 4th annual DPS Fest March 8-10. This year DPS is especially excited to host the Upright Citizens Brigade. The event will feature stand-up performances by local and national improvisers and comedians, and workshops that are open to the public. For more information, visit www.thedeadparrotssociety.com.

Published in the March 2018 issue of What’s Up! Magazine