Chairs scraped across the floor as they were dragged to the perimeters of the room. A few stage lights shone brightly amid the dark theater.
"Everyone ready?" shouted Rob Painter, a junior who had strapped a purple, pointy tail onto his backside.
"Cell phones off!" commanded fellow junior Ryan Welsh.
In the middle of the cleared space, 10 students came together in a tight huddle, arms clasped onto the shoulders of each person beside them. Heads were slightly bent, and they all looked seriously at one another. A few words were whispered by senior Greg Anderson; then the huddle broke, but the group remained in a circle.
Then, without warning--
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Around the circle they went, each "Vroom!" enunciated with a slap of the hand aimed at the next receiver. Occasionally, they were interrupted by the screech of "Oil slick!" and the process was automatically reversed, going around the circle the opposite way. Some burst in with other carlike screeches and random noise. The tempo quickened; the volume increased. Soon, everybody was leaping and shouting at the top of their lungs, and their voices--hardly a pause in-between them--reverberated against the dark walls.
Such exercises serve only as warm-ups for these students, a group otherwise widely recognized as the Duke University Improv troupe. Welcome to their Sunday night practice.
They were now at Branson Theater, a dark, cozy building tucked away on the outer region of East Campus, maniacally whooping and jumping like all overworked Duke students need to do every once in a while.
They progressed onto other similar exercises, substituting "Vroom!" with varied cries of "Number three, number one!" and "Kadunk, kadunk!" The tempo never really slowed. The DUI members finally culminated with a tinnitis-inducing "ONE, TWO, KADUNK, KADUNK!" before stopping, almost abruptly, to catch their breaths and go onto their next act: Sideline Scenes.
Here, real improv begins. The group divided into two and stood on the "sidelines," facing each other from across the room. Welsh and sophomore Andrew Humphries quickly strode into the wide space in-between the sidelines. Humphries kneeled down and hunched over an invisible object, a look of intense concentration coming over his face. Welsh stood behind him.
"I'm really proud of your science grades, Thomas," Welsh began.
Humphries looked up at Welsh. "Thank you, mom."
"Honestly, I mean, you've been working really hard lately," Welsh continued. "I've seen you staying up real late--and I don't like to see you stay up late--but I understand that to get some of this work done, you have to work a little harder."
"If I'm going to get into the school I want, I have to put in the hours," Humphries argued.
As it turns out, Humphries, or "Thomas," was vying to gain admission into a selective high school: "Andover/Exeter--I have to! Come on, mom! I'll sleep when I'm financially secure. Eighth grade is the killer year for high school admission."
The DUI members usually initiate each scene with two or three improv actors. "Walk-ons" frequent these scenes from the sidelines, either bursting or wandering in to complement the ongoing act, or to give the storyline a shove in a different direction.
In one scene, senior Paul Downs stood between freshman Laura Pyatt and junior Jeremy Chapman, holding each of their hands as he attempted to reunite a couple in angst.
"Danny," he said soothingly, looking at Chapman. "You love her. Look at those big brown eyes."
"Why don't you look at my dead mole?!" Chapman promptly yelled.
"Your mole's weird," Pyatt uttered distantly, "even thought it's dead."
Then junior Caroline Haubold quickly threw herself, literally, into the scene and onto the floor before the three of them. She lay curled up in a fetus position, pretending to be a dead mole.
"She didn't mean--" Downs began, but he was interrupted.
"To stab it?" Chapman shouted. A snort of laughter escaped from the sidelines.
"She didn't even use the main knife," he continued. "She used the littler knife, so she got to stab it multiple times!"
Pyatt fought back. "You loved the mole more than you loved me!"
"Oh my God," Downs said. He quickly whirled on Chapman, his eyes flashing angrily. "You see that she loves you, Danny? Why would you let something like this go?"
The comedy continued until someone ran across to the other side of the room, signaling the end of that scene and the beginning of another. DUI managed to weave in about 15 improv scenes in less than an hour, inspired by a nature of spontaneity and a constant flow of quirky, fun ideas.
At the end of their session, they sat down to evaluate their work. Welsh commented on how he liked to do scenes that bared a more serious mood.
"Like the scene I did with Andrew, that was one of the most enjoyable things I got to do in a while," he said. "I got genuinely concerned about 'Thomas.' I got really worried."
Anderson "thought that [the walk-ons and add-ins] were good, but they also got a bit much."
Others agreed, voicing their concerns about "pimping the sidelines" as well as preserving the integrity of the scene. Haubold suggested that these trends might be rooted in the greater freedom that walk-ons had in general.
"When you walk-on, you know you're going to walk-off like 30 seconds later," Haubold said. "You just have the liberty to be crazier."