Arts and Entertainment

The EDGE: Bainbridge improv troupe fearless in its quest for the laugh

The EDGE troupe members, clockwise from top left: Bhama Roget, John Ellis, Ken Ballenger, Cynthia Lair, Andrew Shields, Susan MacPherson, Chris Soldevilla, Frank Buxton and Matty Whitman.  - Connie Mears/Digital Photo Composite
The EDGE troupe members, clockwise from top left: Bhama Roget, John Ellis, Ken Ballenger, Cynthia Lair, Andrew Shields, Susan MacPherson, Chris Soldevilla, Frank Buxton and Matty Whitman.
— image credit: Connie Mears/Digital Photo Composite

For most people, standing on the edge of a cliff is the last place they want to be – heart racing, palms sweating, dry mouth. But for the improv troupe The EDGE, that’s just where the fun begins.

“Improv is like standing on the edge of a cliff and then jumping off,” said Frank Buxton, Island Treasure and one of the cofounders of the ad hoc comedy team some 14 years ago.

“You leap, and just hope you can fly,” he said.

And indeed they can. They lift off on the first Saturday of every month on the BPA stage, riding the thermals, playing off each others’ antics springboarded from audience suggestions.

Die laughing

“Give me the name of a famous person,” Susan MacPherson, appointed emcee for January’s performance, urged the audience.

“Rush Limbaugh!” someone shouted.

“Another,” MacPherson directed.

“The Dalai Lama,” somebody yelled.

The troupe took that interesting juxtaposition and ran with it – right off the cliff.

And what happens if they don’t fly? When you’re making things up as you go along, the occasional dud is inevitable. No worries. They milk that for a laugh, too.

In fact, “Die” is a sequence where players are put on the spot until one of them breaks the rhythm. One-by-one, they are sentenced to a public death (theatrically speaking) and they take turns doing themselves in. Nothing – no, seriously – nothing is off limits here.

Never again

They are insistent and redundantly adamant that nothing is scripted. But they do get together to rehearse.

Rehearsal? For improv?

Well, sort of.

Rehearsals are more about getting into a frame of mind, than about practicing a specific skit.

Tuning into each others’ body language, timing and style, they warm up with an alphabet game called “What are you doing?”

Two players take center stage. The team picks a letter – for instance, B. One player begins to pantomime brushing her hair.

“What are you doing?” the other asks.

“Baking cookies,” she replies and the other must immediately engage in pretend cookie-baking until the other asks, “What are you doing?”

“Basking in the sun.”

And on it goes until someone hesitates – stalling, they call it – and is sent to the back of the line.

“The fact is we perform so that we have an excuse to rehearse,” explained Ken Ballenger. “Rehearsal is usually jaw-achingly funny. We crack ourselves up. It’s like laugh therapy.”

There’s no audience, no applause – it’s all just for the laugh.

“For me, improvisation provides magical fleeting moments of brilliance or insanity, never again to be witnessed. It is like a shooting-star moment. You can’t create it again and you have to be there to feel it.”

Repeatedly going over the edge together has established an incredible bond among the group.

EDGE, party of 10

Chris Soldevilla, who also teaches improv classes at West Sound Academy, said he was impressed the first time he saw The EDGE perform.

“It was funny stuff, strong improv, but the one thing I noticed was that they trusted each other.”

“If we get into trouble, the others are there to save us,” said Andrew Shields, who adds musical accompaniment to the show and, in his spare time, practices medicine and teaches at UW.

MacPherson said some troupes will leave players “twisting in the wind.”

The affection among the group was palpable.

“When you have people behind you, there’s no fear. “It’s fun,” said John Ellis, another of the troupe’s cofounders.

“Honestly, we love each other,” he said.

Group hug

The audience plays a huge role in the success of each performance and The EDGE players are big fans of the Bainbridge crowds. The troupe enjoys a loyal following and that established bond makes a difference in the quality of the show.

“In some venues, you have to spend the first 10 minutes winning the audience over before things warm up,” said MacPherson, who works as a post-partum doula.

At BPA, they go straight for the cliff from the start.

“And they’re very forgiving,” said Cynthia Lair, who has created an Internet show called cookusinterruptus with several of The EDGE cast members.

Soldevilla thinks the Bainbridge audience has a higher level of intelligence than other venues.

“It’s Tolstoy vs. American Idol,” Ellis said.

Get the last laugh

If you want to be part of The EDGE audience, buy your tickets early. The show has been selling out. Just ask the folks who were turned away at the door last month. They weren’t laughing.

The EDGE improv troupe performs at 7 p.m. the first Saturday of every month at BPA, 200 Madison Ave.

Tickets are $15 per person, and $10 for seniors, students, youth, military and teachers.

Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday - Friday, and one hour prior to performance. For info/tickets: Call 842-8569 or visit www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org.

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