Group of students stand in alley way.
Members of Running Amok, one of three VCU improv teams that will make their mainstage debuts Nov. 18. (Courtesy photo)

‘Under the big lights’: VCU’s improv teams take center stage

The Department of Theatre’s first mainstage improv production will take place Nov. 18 at the Raymond Hodges Theatre.

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The excitement in Elizabeth Byland’s voice can’t be denied when she talks about her improv students and their first mainstage show.

“I am over-the-moon excited,” said Byland, head of improv in the Department of Theatre. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our work in the big theater under the big lights. It’s exciting for me and for the students. Our classes and performance team have been like a secret for the last year.”

A seasoned improv entertainer, Byland started teaching in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts a year ago and since then has helped students take their interest in improv from theory to the stage. She directs two improv performance teams in her class — a five-member women’s team, Toxic Shock, and the 12-member Running Amok, a touring team that performs in the community and at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, nursing facilities, comedy festivals and at the Coalition Theater and Comedy Sportz venues. Jeffrey Darland, an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre, directs a third improv team, the nine-member Children at Play. 

On Nov. 18, the three teams will make their mainstage debuts at the Raymond Hodges Theatre. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased online or in person at the box office. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.

“What I want to do is create improv teams like Second City in Chicago. Students can take classes and can audition to be on the teams,” said Byland, who received her improv training in Chicago at ImprovOlympic and is the co-founder of Queen City Comedy and producer of the Queen City Comedy Experience in Charlotte, N.C.

Any student can take Byland’s class as an elective. It is a requirement for performance majors. “If a student wants to continue and work in improv, he or she can come and audition for our improv jams,” Byland said, adding that an improv class is beneficial for all people, no matter their line of work.

At Monday’s 90-minute show, performers will incorporate all of the suggestions the audience gives them, everything from an occupation or an environment to a relationship or song. Each team will have 20 minutes for its skit.

“We will create a spontaneous unscripted story,” Byland said. “It’s a real gift when you watch improvisers create something magical out of a word. It’s a lovely give and take with the audience.”

We will create a spontaneous unscripted story. It’s a real gift when you watch improvisers create something magical out of a word. It’s a lovely give and take with the audience.

Everything done on stage is fresh and spontaneous, Byland said. “Sometimes we’ll have a structure that we try to follow. For example, we may say we are going to do an improvised musical tonight so we try to incorporate songs.”

Students spend time practicing their skills for those moments on stage that might be scary for someone who has not been trained in improv. “They have practiced so much it feels like an adrenaline rush,” Byland said. “They make decisions based on emotional intelligence instead of making decisions out of fear.”

Learning improv helps people to be present and in the moment, Byland said.

“It teaches us to let go of our worries, doubts and anxieties. You just need to be you and be willing to play and to say yes to the unexpected moments. That’s what makes a good improv scene.”

Students find a new sense of confidence and that’s the best part of her job, Byland said. At the end of each class she likes to do positive shout outs to students, complimenting them on their work.

“You know when they are getting it and you can see that and hear it,” Byland said. “You see and feel the community vibes in class. You see them let their guard down and put their phones down and be present with each other. It’s magical.”