Kees de Vries, founder of Improv Comedy group Stranger Things Have Happened, and Thomas Mook are just finishing their advanced class. Laughter fills the room at the USVA as students from the beginners’ class watch the advanced students, hoping to pick up some tips and tricks. Then, suddenly, the beginners jump into action. The 9 p.m. course has begun.
Stranger Things are famous in Groningen and their Monday night shows at O’Ceallaigh’s are immensely popular. However, watching one is very different to taking part in one and the beginners’ class is packed, with over 20 students all eager to learn more in a hands-on way.
A blood-curdling scream pierces the air: a girl lies seemingly dead on the floor. Then another student falls down, appearing to choke on a piece of pie. This is all part of a warm-up game that includes performing Shakespearean-type suicides.
‘I’m just not comfortable in situations where people are watching me,’ reveals one of the course members, international student Jo Fricke, between scenes. He’s signed up to overcome this by pushing himself. ‘To be a funny guy would be cool. I want to be more relaxed when attention is on me and more spontaneous in social situations.’
Fricke returns to the others and the class splits up into teams to play ‘tug-of-war’ Improv style (i.e. without a rope).
The teams grunt and groan, occasionally pretending to stumble or slip, but with no winner after five minutes and the students looking increasingly confused, De Vries stops the game. ‘I’ll give you a hint: there are no winners in Improv,’ he announces. ‘It’s about working together!’
Fricke isn’t the only one who hopes comedy will help him in social situations. Maja Djundeva, originally from Macedonia, is quite shy in her private life even though she has a dayjob as a teacher. She admits: ‘I want to overcome the confidence issues I have in social situations.’
Similarly, Dutch student Marjian Voomeijer hopes the course will help her with her nerves when she’s the centre of attention. She says: ‘It’s the perfect opportunity to confront my fears, and the best way to meet and get to know people, particularly for international students!’
Quick and funny
There are also a lot of students who just want to meet people and have a laugh. Dutch student Joran Welling became engrossed in Improv following an exchange trip to Florence. ‘My American housemates were already part of an improvisational group back in the U.S. They were alert, witty and confident.’
It’s no surprise then that they steered him towards improvisational theatre, too. ‘I want to be as quick and hopefully as funny as them.’
Suddenly, the students are split into two groups. Each has to begin a three-sentence conversation, to which his or her partner will respond accordingly. After multiple murder confessions and marriage proposals, one student steps forward to reveal a seemingly pre-planned conversation. De Vries quickly picks up on that. ‘I don’t want to give my partner something they can’t respond to,’ the student explains.
De Vries shakes his head. ‘The whole point of Improv is what you have right now. Let’s respond to what’s happening right now and not worry about what people might or might not say.’
‘Let go of expectations,’ agrees Mook. ‘The most common fear people have is that they’re not funny or creative enough, but the only thing they need for Improv is enthusiasm.’
By the end of the course Fricke agrees. ‘Here you really learn how to be stupid… or rather, you’re encouraged not to worry about looking stupid!’