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Comedy is serious business for student improv troupe

Improv comedy troupe Improvable Cause

Last updated January 22, 2024

By Jerry Salley ’90

One of the first orders of business in any Improvable Cause show is to “get the crowd going, get their ideas flowing,” said Tate Denham ’26, president of the improvisational comedy troupe. It’s an important step, since the crowd will be helping the performers create their scenarios on stage in real time. 

Improvable Cause members (from left) Brodee Clontz ’26, William Nix ’27, John O’Neil ’25 and Catherine Davis 24 perform.

“Improv is very audience-participatory,” said Denham, an economics and business administration double major. “We’re always asking for ideas, trying to grab things out of them. And we love to have them on stage sometimes just to mess with them.”

The troupe might start with a high-energy improv game like “Should Have Said; Make It Bigger,” in which a host standing at the side repeatedly interrupts a scene in progress by prompting the players to immediately revise their last line of dialogue and amplify the action. Or “Late for Work,” which challenges a performer to improvise an excuse for tardiness based on mimed cues from other players.

With everything being made up on the fly, improv shows can often seem freewheeling and anarchic. But behind the comedic performances are a set of rules that the members of Improvable Cause take very seriously, Denham said.

“The rule of ‘Yes, and…’ is obviously one of the most important,” he said. “It’s a very simple process of adding on to a joke. You say, ‘Yes, that is real in the scene. And further, this is also real in the scene.’ It opens your mind up, and it leads to more thoughtful, developed jokes that can cause someone to almost vomit from laughing, which I’ve seen happen.”

All (or most) joking aside, since the troupe’s founding in 1997, the rotating membership of Improvable Cause has been learning skills that will endure long after stepping offstage, said faculty advisor Ruth Aronoff, an associate professor of Earth sciences.

“It’s one of the most flexible and transferable skills that anyone can develop for any kind of workplace or interpersonal setting,” she said. “The rules of improv help you think about how to navigate situations that are new to you and how to approach interacting with a new person or group.”

Improvable Cause troupe president Tate Denham ’26 (standing) and troupe member Ella Boone ‘27 work out a scene.

Directly engaging in meaningful experiences such as Improvable Cause fits well within the ethos of The Furman Advantage, an educational framework that provides every student an individualized educational pathway and opportunities for high-impact learning experiences, said Aronoff. 

It’s not all about the laughs, either.

“What’s sometimes not obvious when you’re watching improv is that the determining skill for whether you’ll be a gifted improviser is not how funny you are,” Aronoff said. “It’s really about how well you can actively listen, because audiences are totally blown away by the ability to really connect with the other people on stage with you. And that kind of active listening is the key to being able to engage meaningfully in the types of experiences that The Furman Advantage provides.”

A performer in Greenville’s Alchemy Comedy Theater and former student of renowned groups Second City and UCB, Aronoff has seen many post-collegiate young professionals enter improv classes to boost their workplace communication skills.

“Having that skill set already under their belts is going to be such a big leg up for our students,” she said. “There are a lot of professions where you can draw directly on those skills.”

Improvable Cause will perform in Burgiss Theater in the Trone Student Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 26.

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