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Targeting Character

The Faculty, a troupe of teachers from the People's Improv Theater, proves adept at drawing distinct characters within improvisations

Performing with “The Faculty,” Kurt Braunoler once took on the character of a sniper.

“Another scene had been about a secret agent,” Braunoler remembers, “and the whole time I had been assembling my rifle in the background. Suddenly I freaked out because the line of fire had been compromised by someone else coming into the scene. I started taking the gun apart and putting it away.

“Still earlier,” he continues, “Ptolemy (Slocum) had been playing a crab in his shell on the side of the stage for 15 minutes, in the corner looking out. And suddenly he reached out as the crab and ate me.”

As in this seemingly disconnected chain of events, the Faculty, a troupe that draws from the ranks of eight faculty members from the People’s Improv Theater in Manhattan, and, as part-time guests, three other faculty members, makes its trademark the vivid portrayal of distinct characters within a long-form improvisational performance. PIT and its members have won accolades from the Emerging Comics of New York awards and New York magazine.

In their endeavors, the Faculty is aided by the intimacy of their home theater as well as their sense of improv comedy as akin to jazz music. This helps them connect characters that may seem disparate at first.

“Everyone sits in the wings,” says member Ali Farahnakian, describing how his comrades will be poised to jump into scenes, rather than being lined up behind the two or three performers playing out a scene, as is often done by long-form improv groups.

“In jazz improvisation, there’s a riff of a melody,” says member Jen Nails, “and the musicians answer each other, or echo each other or copy each other. From that, there’s patterns, and in the end things come together.”

“There is a crescendo is how both a jazz piece and an improv scene should end,” adds member Matt Donnelly. “As in classical music, where composers put in a rest to let something sink in, we teach students to slow down and let it sink in.”

Extending the jazz description, member Dave Lombard points to the edits group members will do in scenes (usually a performer will run in front of the scene after one of those playing a scene has said or done something that provides closure on what they’re doing -- thus providing an “edit”), as being akin to a trumpet or horn player chiming in to punctuate a jazz melody.

Playing out their improvisations in their intimate 49-seat space, the Faculty gets a different feel than groups housed at the Upright Citizens Brigade receive from wraparound rows of seats on all sides around the stage and greater numbers of seats -- therefore greater numbers of audience members.

“We can be influenced by the energy of the crowd,” says Donnelly. “The room affects how it goes.”

In one recent show, the Faculty found that an opening scene in which the players became skydivers talking about past mishaps got a great reaction, so that became a plot they returned to throughout the performance, in the time-honored improv technique of using audience response to determine what’s funny.

Despite the distinctiveness of characters the Faculty’s members bring to scenes, the sketch comedy genre can be harder to master than improv using characters, explains Lombard. “I’m more nervous with sketch shows,” he says.

The audience energy is less likely to affect a sketch show, adds Donnelly, because “whatever it is, it is,” he says. “No matter what else we do, improv is the most rewarding thing.”

The Faculty (including members Braunoler, Slocum, Farahnakian, Donnelly, Lombard, Nails, Dion Flin, Pat Shay, Chris Grace and Kevin Scott) perform 8 p.m. Wednesdays at the People’s Improv Theater in New York.





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