Leap Before You Look

Leap Before You Look

 

Charlie Hauser ‘06

At about half past five on a spring evening, 10 Denison students stand in a circle on the stage of the Slayter Hall auditorium and play a game of Zoom. It’s a kind of verbal tag, with somebody saying either “zip,” “zog,” or “zap” and pointing to another player, who then does the same thing until there’s only one person left standing. Or at least that’s how it looks as if it’s played. Zoom moves too fast for the uninitiated to follow, but apparently the childish game serves a purpose: It’s a brain teaser, an exercise in spontaneity and quick thinking.

The students belong to the improvisational comedy group Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company, and today it’s time to practice. Improv, of course, is not easy. It takes training and experience to learn to open your mind to unscripted thoughts. During the 90-minute session, most members appear comfortable, even though they are risking their reputations, or at least their senses of humor. Talk about feeling naked and alone; try standing on a stage and say or do something that’s supposed to be funny–just moments after being prompted with, for instance, the phrase, “You’re in a jungle. Go!”

___

David Tyler ‘05, Charlie Hauser (with Brian Giovanni in background)

The most awkward of the Burpee’s bunch are the freshmen, and they’re reminded of their status whenever they’re called to perform. They wear the adjective like a name: Hey, frosh, your turn. They are willing, but it’s apparent they’re still learning. Perhaps in four years they’ll be in the same universe as the seniors who command the stage with a sense that they’ve been doing this for, well, four years. Take, for instance, David McDonald ‘05 and Brian Giovanni ‘05. Both are tall and thin and could pass for brothers–if you overlooked Giovanni’s long hair and bushy beard. Each is relaxed, quick, and confident.

The veterans and the rookies alike sharpen their skills by playing improv games, or, as Burpee’s members call them, formats. One format, for example, requires five people, five different scenes, smooth transitions, and then the scenes repeat in reverse chronological order. (Follow all that?) In another format, each player is given a word, and he must not only weave in his word, but also those of the three other participants.

Throughout the practice, there are times the Burpees look as if they hope their partner can save the scene with a snappy comment. Other times things really click, such as the scenes with the salesman selling a unishoe (one shoe for both feet) or the lawyer convincing a jury that the defendant is evil because he watches Nick at Nite during (gasp!) the day.

There is, believe it or not, no obscenity; even a mild ethnic slur commonly heard in old World War II movies draws a reprimand. The critique sessions are gentle and encouraging; there seems to be a genuine respect, if not affection, among the members. They finish in high spirits as one member chants, “Whit’s, Whit’s, Whit’s,” imploring the others to trek to the frozen custard shop in downtown Granville for a post-practice reward.

“Real improv is reaction, it is speaking before you think and making sense of it later,” says founding Burpee’s Seedy faculty adviser Kevin Hoggard. “Or doing something before you think. People aren’t good at improv because they always want to be safe. You have to be able to let go of something in a second. It’s a series of surprises.”

Dani Lebens ‘06

Imagine the serious study of silliness, a commitment to the concept of play. This is Burpee’s Seedy. For 26 years, Denison students have devoted themselves to practicing and performing the art of improvisation. It is entirely student run. There is an adviser, but it’s a perfunctory position. “It would be a betrayal of the Burpee’s spirit to lend some kind of guiding hand,” says the current adviser, Mark Bryan ‘96, assistant theatre professor and a former Burpee himself.

Somehow the Burpee’s Way has been handed down from generation to generation since 1979 without adult supervision. The group size has remained about the same (10 to 20 members); they perform at Slayter or the Bandersnatch Coffee House; there’s a mix of men and women and majors (from theatre to biology to political science); only freshmen or transfer sophomores are allowed to audition; the format of the season finale remains the same; even The Book, the bible of all things Burpee, continues to be adhered to.

Being a Burpee is no small commitment: During the 2004-05 school year, the 14 members met twice a week for 90 minutes per session, in addition to their campus performances. One of their events was one full day of improv–nonstop performing for 24 hours on the Denison grounds. That’s a new addition to the Burpee’s performance lineup, one that’s met with approval by at least one Burpee’s alum, who says, “That’s cool, that’s very cool.”

There is among Burpee’s alumni a sense that their experience was special, unique, memorable. Misty Owens ‘83, a founding member, fondly compares the group to a garage band–people with similar interests spending time doing something they loved. A handful of Burpees have used the group to launch careers in the entertainment industry. For instance, Tyler Korba ‘97 is now a member of the Washington Improv Theater. Dave Gaudet ‘88, Kat Gotsick ‘88, and Meghan Kelly ‘02 all perform at ComedySportz Chicago, where Gaudet is executive producer and where at least a half dozen other Burpees have performed. Then there are the three who performed together in the early 1980s, went on to Second City in Chicago and eventually to Hollywood, where one of them ran into another former stagemate (see “Funny Man,” page 28).

The origins of Burpee’s Seedy are rooted not so much in students, but in one professor: Kevin Hoggard. It was his idea to start an improv group when he arrived at Denison in the late 1970s to chair the Theatre Department. (He stayed in Granville for only a couple of years before heading to Cerritos College near Los Angeles, where he works today.) It all began as an experiment, a way for his students to explore a new concept. While Hoggard had put together improv groups at other schools, it was still a new discipline; there certainly weren’t any TV shows based on it, such as the Drew Carey program, Whose Line is it Anyway? “Improv was a new thing,” says Hoggard. “There was one book about it. Now improv groups are in every hovel.”

Giovanni ‘05 with Jordan Fehr ‘07 in background.

___

An early Burpee’s promotional piece explains the group’s beginnings: “It was formed from an acting class where improvisation was a teaching method. The group began working outside of class and on weekends, until a year later when they decided to perform publicly… The show opens with an introduction of the group, and they begin to ask for suggestions. The group will do approximately ten skits, for which the audience will provide the who, what, where, and whens for the improvisation.” The early groups were ambitious. Unlike today, Burpee’s Seedy put together traveling tours, doing shows for schoolchildren in not only Licking County and Columbus, but also Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Washington, D.C.

Hoggard, who actually performed in the group at first, established the tone and purpose, which holds today. One important tenet: Keep it clean. “Going blue” is a cheap and lazy way to get a laugh; you don’t improve taking the easy route. The philosophy is deeply ingrained in the group. Bryan remembers during his Burpee’s days from 1992 to 1996 that the group wanted to break the rule once by doing a flat-out filthy show–but it just couldn’t get dirty on stage. “The worst it got was to repeat the scientific names of genitalia,” he says.

Another important rule: No denial. Hoggard gives an example of one member saying, “Mom, I’ve stubbed my toe,” and another responding, “I’m not your mother, never seen you before.” He explains, “It may be funny, but you’ve left your partner all alone, left him with the responsibility of moving the improv along and you’ve contributed nothing.”

Hoggard also explains the appeal of putting yourself alone on stage–unscripted, under pressure to perform, to be funny. “When you do improv for the first time, you tap into everything. It is so surprising to you. You discover things about yourself. It is such a high. Addictive. At the end of any good improv, you look back and say, ‘How in the heck did we come up with that?’ “

He continues, “You get outside of your head. It’s pretty exciting stuff.” What does he mean “outside of your head”? Shouldn’t you have a plan so you don’t freeze in front of an audience? Just the opposite. “Real improv is reaction, it is speaking before you think and making sense of it later. Or doing something before you think. People aren’t good at improv because they always want to be safe. You have to be able to let go of something in a second. It’s a series of surprises. People will say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ That’s the zone you want to be in.” (Don’t get the idea this is taken too seriously. After all, these are college students. As Matt Makman ‘96 said in the Denisonian in 1992, the group wants “to have fun and make people laugh, and if we can make someone pee their pants, hey, all the more power to us.”)

Interestingly, Burpee’s Seedy attracts a lot of non-theatre majors drawn to the group as a creative outlet from studying Faulkner or the law of supply and demand. One of those non-theatre majors in the original group was Charlie Hartsock ‘83, now an actor in L.A. He was an economics major who took theatre classes. He learned a lot from Burpee’s Seedy. “Improv is the most valuable tool I have as an actor,” he says. “I never knew about improv until I went to Denison… and Denison changed my life, by putting that opportunity out there for me. No matter what I do now, I’m using what I learned from improv: be in the moment, listen, listen.”

As Burpee Matt Makman ‘96 once said in the Denisonian, the group wants “to have fun and make people laugh, and if we can make someone pee their pants, hey, all the more power to us.”

Em Franzwa ‘05 and Craig Chosney ‘05

It’s clear Burpee’s Seedy had an impact on many other former members. For James Anderson ‘85, the group helped him grow. “You have to come out of your shell. You have to be fearless. It helped me get over being shy.” Mark Bryan remembers the camaraderie, but also the competition, since not everyone could be a star each scene. “There were some real hard feelings, but it made for good work,” he says. “I may not have liked everyone in the group, but I trusted them–maybe not with my wallet, but with being funny.” He says the other major appeal to Burpee’s was that unlike a theatrical production, with a script and a director, “the work was my own. Not only the acting, but also the making; you were the primary creative artist in that moment.”

For Steve Carver ‘83 and classmate Misty Owens, the fact that Burpee’s still exists is a tribute to the founding members. “You have no idea what that means to those of us who started it,” says Carver. Adds Owens, “It wasn’t supposed to last for [more than] 20 years; it was just something to do when we got together. Bravo to the students who have kept it going.”

Two seniors, McDonald and Emily Franzwa, are doing a scene, and all the tumblers are falling into place; they are in the zone. They’ve invented a story on the spot of an inept hit man (McDonald) and a mouthy target (Franzwa). Their responses are witty and logical, their characters complex, the storyline surprising. The other members, who normally would be quick to jump into the action, watch intently; when one finally decides to participate, the others moan, not wanting McDonald and Franzwa to stop. They have just watched Burpee’s magic, that moment of: How in the hell did we do that?!

Later, Franzwa, a creative writing major with a minor in religion, talks about the scene with McDonald. “The goal of Burpee’s is to be that comfortable with each other,” she says. “It is an intimate group. You have to absolutely, fundamentally, care about how you are doing. It is a level of connection.”

McDonald, a dual theatre and biology major, says it takes four years to get to a point of knowing when to stop a scene at just the right moment–or immediately shake off the disappointment of a format heading away from your funny punch line. It also takes experience (and talent) to do what Giovanni, a cinema major, did during last fall’s 24-hours-of-improv gig. When he began to take part in the endurance test, he noticed other members lagging. He gave them a break by going solo, doing a format that calls for him to be given three names and to create a character based on each of the names. (When someone claps, he switches characters.) Instead, he did seven characters. “It was a test of memory,” he says. And then to continue to aid his fellow Burpees he did another solo format that required an elaborate death scene. He did so for all seven of the characters from the previous format. It was his shining moment, he says, as a Burpee.

___

Chosney and Ryan Lucas ‘07

Past and current Burpees refer with nostalgia– some with a touch of reverence–to The Book, or as Bryan calls it, “scripture.” The Book is the foundation of the Burpee’s philosophy. It is vital to upholding the group’s standards as the next generation assumes control.

Considering the Burpee’s concept, one might expect The Book to be handwritten notes scribbled on bits of torn paper and shoved between the battered cover of a scrapbook. Actually, The Book is as neat as an accountant’s ledger. (So much for romanticized notions.) It’s a black three-ring binder, with the cover saying “Denison University” in crisp white print and the phrase “The one and only … Burp Book!” in red and yellow marker. Inside are 69 uniform-sized sheets of white paper.

The opening page is a copy of an ad–purportedly published in the New York Times on Feb. 1, 1925–for the W. Atlee Burpee Co., promoting its annual catalog with the headline, “Burpee’s Seeds Grow.” (The company is the inspiration for the group’s name.) The second page is a list of the rules all Burpees must follow. In addition to No Denial and Keep it Clean, there are: Leave your personal problems at the door. Respect the actors on stage by watching and keeping quiet. A Burpee comes to rehearsal. If not, you “become un-Burpee.” Burpee takes risks, tries crazy stuff, does not succeed sometimes… . Burpee is a warrior. No props, cameras, monkeys, dancing, fighting. (Again, too easy to get a cheap laugh.)

After that page of rules is the heart of the Burpee’s experience: the 67 formats. These are the games by which Burpees learn to be good Burpees. There’s Foreign Movies, which requires that “the actor stands on stage and mouths nonsensical words like he/she is talking in a foreign language while his partner is sitting at the foot of the stage ‘dubbing’ in an English voice.” Or there’s Gumby: “The performers assume a random position, and the audience members are instructed to move the performers’ bodies as they please, while the performers come up with dialogue to justify their movements and create the scene.”

The really big show takes place on May 1. This is the last Burpee’s performance of the season, which, following tradition, is “Out with the Old, In with the New.” The only performers tonight are seniors (out with the old) and first-year students (in with the new). In fact, this is the debut for the four first-years: Ryan Ahlrich, Matt Coon, Lindsay Hittner, and Alyson Thiel. That’s another Burpee’s rule: freshmen are allowed to participate only in practices until this show.

An enthusiastic crowd fills the lower half of the Slayter Hall auditorium. The introduction is a skit put on by the sophomores and juniors to needle the freshmen and seniors. The theme is an evil scientist’s convention, with each mad man (or woman) making a presentation about a new mutant created to destroy the world. There’s the Talkmus Aloticus, who bores his preys to death with incredibly long e-mails. (The image flashed on a screen is the face of Matt Coon morphed onto the body of a raccoon.) Senior David Tyler is shown as a panda who’s eating bacon, while another senior, Craig Chosney, is depicted as the most apathetic creature known to man, stripping people of their selfesteem by telling them, “It’s not sexy enough.”

After a ceremony in which the freshmen are awarded their Burpee’s uniforms (bowling shirts), the improv begins. Things move quickly. One format features five people, a game of Twister and a waiter giving an economics lesson. Another requires that all dialogue be in the form of a question.

Then there’s the Three Novels format, with each participating Burpee telling a Star Wars type of story in a different writing style: James Bond (McDonald), Cosmopolitan (Giovanni) and the Bible (Coon). As the story unfolds to McDonald, he describes a scene in which he’s asking a woman to undo her blouse; Coon follows with the Biblical comment of, “And that’s how they learned about the dangers of sin.”

Giovanni’s big moment is his solo death scene; it’s the last time he will perform alone as a Burpee. The prompt from the audience on how he should die involves a cheesy screenplay. Giovanni masterfully works in four characters, a spiral staircase, a few puns, and a heist gone tragically bad. As he lies on the stage, he gasps his last breath after imploring, “To all those who dare to dream.”

Then comes the final format. It’s called Beads on a String, and all 14 Burpees participate. It involves a series of repeated pithy phrases. After McDonald ends the format with “Goodnight Moon,” the group receives a standing ovation while the members exchange hugs. All that’s left is to ham it up for the group photo.

And so the evening ends, marking one more year of the Burpee’s Seedy tradition dutifully and humorously preserved.


Ray Paprocki is editor of Columbus Monthly and author of A Columbus State of Mind (PublishAmerica). He wrote about basketball coach Bob Ghiloni, three of his players, and the religion class they took together in the Summer 2005 Denison Magazine.

Published November 2020