As an audience member, watching a good improv show can feel chaotic. An unexpected magic happens onstage when you see performers producing new material before your eyes. But good improv is hard. It requires an unwavering belief in a fictional moment, a strong and steadfast collaborative spirit and a self-awareness that’s nearly impossible to achieve. It’s so hard that a lot of performers avoid it at all costs. Yet two regular weekly performances are a testament to how dedicated the ABQ improv scene is. The Show (the name of the troupe as well as their weekly gig) and Comedy?, both at The Box (100 Gold SW), are gradually growing while experimenting with various formats.
Dove explains that when he created The Show, improv in ABQ was very different. “What we needed to do was to raise the bar of what Albuquerque could do,” says Dove. “The reason that improv came and went and didn’t work was the same reason why anything doesn’t: It’s all about quality. Something like The Show had never been done here before.” Dove explains that it’s the formatting and presentation of The Show that makes it such a unique experience. “We’ve presented it in such a polished and tight way, and that’s why it’s still around.”
“The Show” has become one of the best-known and highly attended improv shows in the state. They recently won the Alibi Best Comedy Troupe award and have sold out nearly every performance for the past six months. This, of course, has a lot to do with a wide audience appeal but also, like a lot of ABQ arts’ scenes, is due to a grassroots campaign. “A marketing plan never existed,” says Dove. “We relied on word of mouth and various social media efforts.”
Establishing The Box as an improv theater led to other troupes being housed there, like Comedy?, which started as a college troupe but has evolved. “We’re younger and more experimental,” says founding member Sarah Mowrey. “The Show does games, but we do long-form, which is more story-based. We get a suggestion from the audience and then create scenes—each one going into and inspiring the next.” During one recent performance the cast, from an audience suggestion, constructed a hilariously dark scene about a young boy having to get a job because his dad left the family poor. The scene bounced back and forth between a domestic life falling apart and a psychotically happy dad driving away as he cackled.
Comedy? took an entirely different path than The Show, but they work in tandem at The Box to offer a variety of experiences for the audience. “We started as a troupe in 2010 doing games,” says Mowrey. “But we began long-form recently because it was something we really wanted to do. It’s the way our collective brain works as a troupe. Now we do long-form improv and sketch.” Mowrey values the diversity in form and content of the ABQ improv scene and says, “Hopefully there will be more troupes and shows springing up.”
Dove has a plan for this—a way to diversify ABQ improv and create interesting and meaningful work. “What we’re going to do next is add cast members that are more reflective of the community,” says Dove. “And then we’re going to do a satirical sketch review of New Mexico called ‘Oh Susana!’ We want to touch on politics because there’s nothing really doing that.”
The differing experiences of The Show and Comedy? are representative of what has always made the various ABQ performing arts scenes unique—the willingness to experiment and be socially and politically conscious. The developing improv scene is just now beginning to tackle these more complex and enriching areas of performance. It will be interesting to see how it manifests in a difficult medium where anything goes—as long as the performers are willing to take it there and believe wholeheartedly in the fiction they are magically creating.