A bare stage and black walls might not sound like a place of laughter. Doesn’t really seem like the kind of setting that would spark crazy creativity. And it sure doesn’t look like where you would find some of the most clever, spontaneous people on Kauai.
But when it comes the folks behind the InsPirates improv comedy, it’s all they need, if that. Really, just give them a place to interact with an audience, give them a few scenarios, even just a word, and they’ll have you laughing in no time.
They do it with expressive faces, voice inflections, body language, and some of the quickest wits you’ll likely ever witness.
That’s the very heart of improv — and these folks are very, very good at it, starting with Thalyn Nikolau, leader of this comedy improv troupe who has been producing and performing theater events on the island for six years.
He calls it the jazz music of the theater world.
“Improv takes a very unique blend of skills. Seemingly paradoxical at times,” he said. “When people come to wlearn, they usually show up on one end of the spectrum or other, from timid and contained to over bold and filter free. Getting to the art core of improv requires an ever-changing dance between open freedom and specifically directional.”
So what’s the key to success? Anything specific they do well that makes things click on stage?
“We listen to each other, we listen to the audience, we listen to The Muse, all while contributing positively to the unfolding story,” he said.
A wonderful part of improv, he says, is “getting to surf the magic of discovery with everyone in the room. And revel in the spontaneous genius that comes from both player and audience.”
It’s exactly why you’ll never grow weary of this act, because it’s changes with each performance.
The InsPirates are performing every Friday in June, 8 p.m. at the Wit’s End Theater in the Coconut MarketPlace. Tickets are $10 at the door, and it might just be the best $10 you’ll ever spend. Come in grumpy, go away grinning, guaranteed.
Nikolau is the man who sets up each act, chats with the audience and calls for words, stories, ideas, that the cast quickly turns into a skit that seems so smooth, you figure it must be rehearsed. But it’s a new show, each night, depending on the energy that flows from the crowd. The direction of a story on stage unfolds with audience suggestions.
“The more the audience understands that with their suggestions and energy, they are part of the creation, the better for everyone,” he said. “It’s a group ride, not just a voyeuristic experience.”
From cleaning a fish to yodeling to showering, the InsPirates create a comedy routine that plays off each other’s strength and skills. They tell stories, they dance, they jump, they yowl like cats. They sing, they shower, they blink. They can go from angry to tearful to terrified to sassy to possessed on command.
And somehow, they make it look insanely fun.
“We all have multiple skills or the improv wouldn’t work,” Nikolau said.
Here’s how he describes his improv crew:
• Emma Palumbo is a tour de force and has a true comedian’s mind with acting skills that can confidently take her anywhere.
• Ron Soderstrom is a solid everyman character with a constantly surprising arsenal of wit and physical comedy.
• Philip Brautigam is our mind man. When we can pass him a ball that let’s him unleash his copious intelligence, we’re all in for a good ride.
• Demian McKinley brings a rare combo of physical flexibility and deadpan to the stage.
• S.J. Lehoven blends her sharp mind with an extra helping of goofball.
• Erin Orshal has great character flexibility and a highly satirical shine.
“And I’m a light speed wit-slinger with friendly hosting charisma, and a 20-year professional theater background that gives me a multi dimensional insight into a broad spectrum of human behavior,” Nikolau said of himself.
Nikolau started teaching improv on Kauai about four years ago and began recognizing some “troupe worthy talent.” The Kauai crew has been playing together for two years.
While his love for improv is deep, it’s not without challenges because many people don’t know what improv is, how it works and aren’t sure they want to find out. It can be a bit out of your comfort zone to attend a live show and have the guy on stage look right you.
“We not only have to provide good entertainment, we have to educate people on what it is and why they want it,’ Nikolau said. “As long as we have a good venue and an audience, everything else kind of falls right into place.”
“You might think that every so often, these guys would get stumped, draw a blank, not be able to come up with anything at a moment’s notice. Just once, maybe they’ve have that deer in the headlights stare.
You would be wrong.
“We’re usually moving so fast there’s no time to get stumped,” Nikolau said.