SUMMIT, NJ — Anyone crowding into Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 12, will be able to call out sketch ideas, which will be relayed onstage by a host moderator. And in the confines of the 120-seat theater, during an “anything goes” night of improv comedy, the members of the audience will be encouraged to let their imaginations run wild.
As a result, the actors have no idea what to expect going into the performance, said Laura Ekstrand, the Artistic Director at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre. They may end up acting like birds, planes, or Superman, or perhaps all three at the same time, or any number of different things.
But the rule of thumb in improv comedy, added Ekstrand, is to expect the unexpected.
“The kids yell out whatever movie they’d just seen, or some toy they have at home, or something. So one of the jobs of the host is to listen to all of the suggestions, and really quickly choose the one they think works best for the game. The host’s job is to moderate the input,” said Ekstrand. “It’s 50-50 with the audience. A really good improv show needs a really good audience. So unlike a play, where we kind of do what we do and they watch it, if we have a really energetic, responsive audience that’s really involved, we’re much better.”
The upcoming show, which is also the opening act of the Summit-based theater’s fall season, will be starring members of local acting company Multiple Personality Disorder, as well as guest and full-time improver Lulu French. The acting company has been a partner with Dreamcatcher for the past 13 years, and has been at the heart of improv comedy shows for more than 21 years.
But despite that lengthy tradition, every show is unique, according to Ekstrand. The only onstage tools the actors can use are everyday objects. Everything else comes from the actors’ talent and the imagination in the room.
“Improv is a great way for an actor to keep sharp. You stay on your toes, you don’t get to be too comfortable, ever. It helps hone your spontaneity and also your risk-taking,” said Ekstrand. “It’s so important for an actor to keep taking risks in their work, and with improv, there’s nothing but. Even for a person who does a lot of straight acting, improv is like a phenomenal workout for them.”
That’s why the name Multiple Personality Disorder is fitting, added Ekstrand, as it accurately represents the wild nature of improv comedy shows. During any given night, members of the audience will rapidly suggest a variety of characters for the actors, not all of them easy or conventional. During many shows, the improvers will each act out 25 different personalities, said Ekstrand.
And even when something goes wrong amid all of the action, the laughs keep piling on.
“People can expect something really fast-moving. Some of these bits are a couple of minutes, some of them unfold a little longer than that, but it’s a really fast-paced night, a really energetic night,” said Ekstrand. “And even if things go wrong, they’re still funny. And how wrong can they go, really? It’s actually better if everything is not perfect, because it’s funnier.”
The potential for funny miscues is always there, added Ekstrand. During one moment of a show, an actor might be playing Superman, and in the next they’re pretending to be a cat. But Dreamcatcher, which typically hosts several improv comedy shows a year, always gets a good crowd for these performances, said Ekstrand.
The theater is also a particularly good fit for improv comedy shows, added Ekstrand, because the actors are so close to the audience, as if it they were onstage in a club. That’s part of the appeal for kids, who enjoy being able to engage with the scenes unfolding in front of their eyes.
“We do have a full, professional season at the theater, but the improv nights are a way for us to be really casual with the audience,” said Ekstrand. “It’s a really fun, informal night, and we get a lot of families to come. What I’m told is that it’s really hard for parents to find a thing that tweens want to go to with them, and this happens to be something that is perfect for that age group. So that age of 10 and up come with their family, and that’s a really nice thing.”
Tickets are $20, and $15 for students 15 and younger. The performance is at Oakes Center, located at 120 Morris Ave. in Summit.