Give the Webernauts a word, and they’ll give you a story.
Promoted by instructor Chuck Charbeneau with “roses,” the team of six improvisers quickly rattled off thoughts and feelings associated with the popular flower before two members broke out into a scene of unrequited love, leaving the group laughing and applauding.
“I despise you,” snarled Rick Gramlich, zeroing in on his association of roses with disdain. Partner Justin Gray, having himself latched onto the idea that love is a rose, replied with an emphatic, “I love you.”
Spreading his arms to keep his infatuated partner at a distance, Gramlich asserted, “This is my bubble,” but an undeterred Grays went in for a enthusiastic hug, proclaiming, “I love your bubble.”
Gramlich and Grays know quick thinking, supporting your partner and feeling the moment are essential to successful improvisation, and the two hone their skills every Saturday with the Webernauts, an improv troupe created and led by Charbeneau in partnership with the La Crosse Community Theater. The free program, open to ages 18 and older, draws anywhere from three to 15 new and seasoned improvisers each weekend, with many members electing to take part in the Webernauts’ annual improv festival, which returns Feb. 15-18.
Charbeneau, who has degrees in computer science and theater, has been teaching improv for over two decades, and has acted in several local theater productions. He likens improv and scripted theater to “different sides of the same coin.”
“(Script) is creative in the preparation. Improv is creative in the moment,” Charbeneau said.
Charbeneau begins each class with physical and mental warm-ups, with exercises such as rattling off the first things that come to mind, prompting ideas with phrases such as “It is” and learning to seamlessly morph into someone else.
“The opening (of a show) is the only moment where the audience sees you for who you are,” Charbeneau told the class. “From then on, you’re a character.”
Developing a character on the fly is one of the challenges of improv, and Gramlich tends to develop his persona using his own life experiences blended with his creative impulses. He appreciates the flexibility that improv allows, noting, “We’re free to basically take (our character) as big as we want to.”
“You’re not just acting on what is handed to you, you’re doing your own thing,” agreed troupe member Sam White.
When their own minds go blank, troupe members turn to their partners to take the lead, bouncing off and building from each action and phrase. A lesson in teamwork at its core, improvisers have the challenge of being both prepared with their own ideas and prepared to let them go out the window when a partner changes course.
“The root of improv is, ‘Yes, and ...’” Charbeneau said. “You need to know when to let go of your ego and let your partner shine.”
Charbeneau also stresses letting go of the impulse to lead with humor. While improv is often associated with comedy, he teaches that successful improv comes from trust — the trust of the audience that you’ll lead them on an emotional journey, letting them find humor in truth rather than clever quips.
“Laughter can come from all different places,” Charbeneau said. “You’ll never find them all if you try to be funny.”
Finding daily applications for improv, however, is easy — from anticipating one’s needs through observation and careful listening to adapting when obstacles pop up unexpectedly.
“Every moment you’re in this world,” Charbeneau said, “it’s a moment of improvisation.”