Jennifer Fuller steps forward from a lineup of a dozen comedians and starts miming for a packed house at the Artesian.
She uses big gestures that seem vaguely athletic, but it’s unclear exactly what she’s trying to convey in her speechlessness.
None of her fellow Hitchhikers Improv Company members jumps into the scene. Instead, they begin taking turns razzing her.
“She’s gonna go pro,” one yells.
“I’ve never seen this technique before,” another shouts.
A few other remarks, and finally someone ends the scene, suggesting she’s having a hard time reaching a cereal box.
After another scene, another story, Fuller retries her tactic.
She lifts a leg onto a chair, again without words.
And again, her fellow actors heckle.
“She’s gonna go pro.”
“I’ve never seen this technique before.”
Someone suggests she’s mixing a martini.
Maybe a little flustered, Fuller says, “I give up on this,” and takes a place back in line.
But the third time might be the charm, so she tries again after another scene or two.
“Wow, she’s really going for it,” someone comments — and the lights go dark. That’s the end of the show.
Even the lighting designer got in on the joke.
“It’s called pimping,” Sam Gross explained after Friday night’s show. “To us, we all knew what was exactly about to happen, but (Fuller) didn’t because she was in front of us. And so we pimped her back into that character.”
“One of the ideas in improv that comes up a lot is the idea of a game in a scene … and all of the improvisers pick up on it and it repeats,” said Cole Nicolson.
“The funny thing is, you don’t know what that other person’s thinking. You don’t know if they’re completely on a different page. But like, as long as you accept the idea, it’s going to work, right?”
Improv comedy is all about ideas — some of which come from the audience. Though those ideas can dramatically change a story mid-scene, the actors usually execute them without skipping a beat.
With one suggestion — “The birds got in again!” — two men conversing inside a cabin began flapping their arms like wings.
The appeal of improv comedy is that “it’s never been done,” Genevieve Robinson said. “You will never see the same improv scene ever again.”
When host Andrew Parry opened the evening to rousing applause, it felt like the beginning of Saturday Night Live.
And like that long-running variety show, the Hitchhikers’ performance went on to run the gamut, as four teams performed — including one called Panago Baseball, which passed around three large pizzas among the audience before starting their set.
Characters that night included a cat burglar disguised as a Tinder date, a mother and son making sausage, a sentient sponge named Max, a failed wedding planner, and a family in a creepy cabin in the woods — where among the taxidermied animals was the head of someone’s sister-in-law.
But ask their portrayers about it, and you might get a blank stare.
“If you were to (say to) me like, ‘Oh, good scene,’ I would have been like, ‘I don’t remember anything.’ I totally black out,” said Robinson.
“I feel like when you’re up there and you’re in the zone, you’re having a lot of fun, you’re committing yourself completely to that moment,” said Nicolson. “You’re just so entirely focused … that your brain doesn’t have any more space to think about it anymore.”
Parry, Gross, Cameron Chomyn and Danny Murphy started Hitchhikers Improv seven years ago.
High school friends who all partook in the Canadian Improv Games, they wanted to keep performing improv after graduating.
“There wasn’t really a lot of opportunity for the people coming out of high school,” said Gross. “There was smaller opportunities for a few people. But it was like, what about all of our friends? Like, there’s like 40 of us here.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it to grow into such a big community,” added Gross. “But now it’s even more fun, even more friends.”
Brika Steinberg is one of the newer friends. A Hitchhikers member for the past two years, she got into improv comedy to challenge herself to leave her comfort zone.
“I remember when I started taking classes, and I told my kid … ‘I’m gonna go to classes so I can learn how to play better,’” said Steinberg. “In the rest of my life, I have to be a more serious adult a lot of the time, and to be able to just get into that sense of play is just so healing and so fun and just kind of rare.”
“The other day at practice, we played Sardines, like the reverse Hide and Go Seek,” said Gross. “Or like we’ll do the human knot, or we play Tag. We’ll do them for warmups and it’s actually so fun.”
Hitchhikers — and improv comedy in general — fosters “an accepting and welcoming community,” said Nicolson. That’s why he joined the team at Miller High School, where three of the Hitchhikers founders also got their start.
“I think you keep coming back to it, because you know it’s always going to be there as a place that you feel at home.”
“You’re put in the weirdest situations where you are like, being a cat, and you’re mimicking what a cat would do in a certain career. And everyone around you is like, ‘Yes, you are doing amazing,’” said Robinson.
“And it’s just this positive energy and this uplifting sense of whatever you put out there, someone will always be there to catch you and to say, ‘Yes, this is good.’”
“I find it a good escape for my mental health. I think it definitely makes me happier,” added Robinson. “There’s something about it that’s just really addicting. And making the audience laugh is like the best feeling in the world.”
Hitchhikers also hosts a monthly B-Rude standup comedy show, and teams go head to head at Combat Improv.
An upcoming Cathedral Village Arts Festival show will combine sketch, improv and standup comedy — and “I think it’s going to be a little bit raunchy, if that’s the right word,” said Gross. “You’re going to get all our shows pulled into one mini little show.”
Friday, May 24, 7 p.m.