You know an actor means business when he refers to the 2014 movie Whiplash (about a face-slapping, chair-throwing jazz conductor) as a model of a tough but successful learning experience. That’s what Hank Sanders, 17-year-old member of Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s improv team Impulse, did when I asked him about the group. “We read a book about how the best practice isn’t fun,” says Sanders. “So while I might not be always smiling and happy and be like, ‘Wow, I cannot wait for rehearsal,’ I think that’s a good sign and that we’re the best we’ve ever been.”
He has a point. Impulse’s 2018 show is improv at its finest—smoothly executed by well-trained performers, yet with a sense of weirdness that can only come from trusting your gut. I first encountered Impulse when I watched a rehearsal last month and the versatility I witnessed (the actors dreamed up comedic skits on the spot about everything from Batman to carpeting) is fully displayed in the show.
Impulse is a part of OCT’s Young Professionals Company, a year-long advanced acting program for students ages 14-18. The Impulse shows combine games with short and long scenes, which use audience suggestions as inspiration (the actors ask the audience beautifully bizarre questions such as, “Would you like to see a scene about a broken ruler or a crying student?”). This year’s performers are Sanders, Bryce Duncan, Isaac Ellingson, Devlin Farmer, Emma Fulmer, Nate Gardner, Onar Smith, Emma Stewart and David VanDyke.
The first thing you notice about the Impulse performers is that they seem like mini adults, thanks to the sophistication of their sense of humor. “We’re not doing jokes that kids are supposed to be doing,” Sanders points out. “We’re not doing that kind of humor—slapstick, body-language humor, dirty humor, low-hanging fruit.” That turned out to be true of the opening night show, which involved inventive skits such as a scene about a man who has stolen a cookie while wearing a pizza box and is aided by BB-8, the soccer-ball-style robot from the most recent Star Wars films.
I asked Jay Flewelling, the director of Impulse, if he thinks that the youthfulness of the performers feeds their inventiveness. “Yes, because I would say that the world will beat you down [as you grow older],” he told me. “A normal person doesn’t live in the ‘yes’ mode, because our world is a ‘no’ world—it’s a culture of ‘no.’” “Yes” is perhaps the most important word in improv—the rule is that if you’re playing a scene, you don’t reject a development introduced by another performer; you roll with it. And it is amazing what the Impulse performers roll with, especially when they’re asked to do something truly insane, like playing the inventor of Windex and speaking improvised lines in unison.
Yet while Impulse demands synchronicity between its performers, part of the joy is of the show is watching their individuality peak through. For instance, I learned during my interview with Sanders that he’s not a Star Wars fan and in a cruel irony, the premiere of this year’s edition of Impulse fell on May 4, Star Wars day. As the audience hurled countless scene suggestions related to George Lucas’ space opera at the actors, it was entertaining to watch Sanders find a way to turn his dislike into comedy gold (even I, a diehard fan of the franchise, had to smile at one joke in particular that he told: the creators of Star Wars walk into a bar, are told the bartender doesn’t cater to their kind and throw money at him until he agrees to serve them).
Impulse has a slightly bittersweet quality this year, given that it’s Flewelling’s final outing as the troupe’s director. But he remains grateful for the experience. “It’s the dream team,” he says. “I swim in the comedy world in Portland and a lot of times, I talk about Impulse and people say, ‘Yeah, that’s cute, some kids, whatever.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but their improv is better than yours, my friend.’”
Impulse’s improv performances continue through May 20 at Oregon Children’s Theatre’s YP Studio Theatre, 1939 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Ticket and schedule information here.