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KS Cover no. 72 2006 May

MAY 2006 :: 072


Throw me a line

A new improvisational comedy group comes to Osaka

What do you get when you put a group of foreigners together in a bar in Amerika-Mura, Osaka? As most people know, the evening will probably descend into a night of drunken fun and games. Except that the next time you turn up at Balabushka, you could well find yourself taking part in some games of a very different kind.

If you've ever heard of Who's Line Is It Anyway? you'll know that it's a line-up of improvisational (improv) comedians who perform games and skits based on random suggestions either from the audience or from pre-written prompts given by the show's host. It's fast, it's unplanned, it's unpredictable and, quite literally, anything can happen.

Few people would think, or even want, to try it for themselves. The idea of getting up there in front of hundreds of people with no script and no idea what you are going to say or do, while hoping for a well-timed laugh, would probably send most people running to the nearest bar for a calming drink.

Yet for five men and one woman, this exactly what they plan to do. And for all but one of them it will be for the very first time. Rather them than me, that's for sure.

Pirates of the Dotombori, a new improvisational comedy group (its name was inspired by the film Pirates of the Caribbean, and given a local twist — the Dotombori is a canal running through Osaka) was the brain-child of 25-year-old Mike Staffa, a seasoned comedian from Minnesota with seven years comedy experience under his belt.

Forming an improv group was one of the reasons he moved to Osaka. “I knew there were a lot of foreigners here and as Japanese comedy is quite different from European or American comedy, I wanted to try my hand at it”, he explained.

“I talked about it when I first got here, but I sat on the idea for a while. I wanted to get used to Japan and the culture first”, he continued.

But why on earth would anyone want to do this? For 32-year-old Californian, Chaka Small, the group's newest member, it was pretty straight forward. “It's my first time doing formal improv”, he said. “But I like acting and improv is a form of acting, and I love the buzz that comes from the stage”.

From Canada, the US and China, the group members cover a range of backgrounds, but what everyone in the group shares is a love of per-forming and of making people laugh.
For some this has been a new-found discovery.

“When I see people laughing, it makes me more confident. It makes me very, very happy. It has changed my life”, said 24-year-old Zhang Yuning from Beijing, China. “I feel that I can bring someone something and being in the group is also a lot of fun”, she continued.

For Yuning, the group holds yet another challenge: language. Not only is she a first time comedian, but she will be performing in her third language.

When asked how she felt about it she said, “the first day I came to the group, I was totally confused about what everyone was doing as they had been practising for months. I felt a little uncomfortable about not understanding, and I didn't want to continue. But the next time I came I thought, well, maybe I can do something. So I stayed with the group and now I'm having fun”.

Although fluent English speaker, there are still moments when she doesn't quite catch what is being said. This has provided her with her own unique role in the group, and one which she has been able to work to her advantage during the performance.

For all of the members, though, it has been a learning experience and one of the things about improv comedy is that you never know what you can do until you try. “It's about being in the moment and letting things come”, said Chaka. “You can create great stuff from week to week and the ideas are endless”.

For Mike, though, forming the group was a huge risk. No auditions were held and he accepted anyone who answered his advert, whatever their experience; or lack of it. The group has come together from literally nothing, and the members trained from scratch.

“I just took everyone and went from there”, he said. “There were two paths I could have taken. I could have started the group and worked towards a show in a relatively short time, or just been the teacher because I enjoy it that much.”

The idea for the show came much later, as he explained, “it wasn't until two months in that we thought we could try for a show”.

Anyone, apparently, can be an improve comedian. That is, if you have the willingness to learn and just go for it. However, Mike does warn that “some people can perform the games, but it doesn't mean that they can do it on the stage”.

For this reason, trust has been a main feature of the training the recruits have recei-ved, and in fact, one of the things that all group members talked of was the deep friend-ships they have formed with one another.

More than one member noted the level of camaraderie and surprise, not to mention plea- sure, at the extent to which they complement each other during the performance.
So what exactly can the audience expect from the show?

“Most of the people who choose to come to this type of show, choose to have fun”, said Mike. There will be partici-pation from the audience in the form of sugge- stions for scenes or key words for games. Each game has a rule or a gimmick.

Using what information they have been given, the performers will carry out re-enact-ments, or as in the game Slide Show, an audience member may be asked to provide a setting or suggest a location, while the comedians are out of earshot. The host will then invent an amusing story on the spot, to the accompaniment of random poses from the performers when they return to the stage. Watching them in rehearsal, it was hilarious. However, Mike was reassuring when he said that no-one in the audience will be picked on, “no-one will be brought on stage. An audience member might be asked to answer some que-stions or asked to give a suggestion for a scene, but that's all”.

One of the benefits of this type of show is that it is very visual. This means that although the majority of the expected audience will be English speakers, Japanese audiences will also be able to relate to it. In fact, Mike has made sure that the group uses international English, and that there is no region-specific slang, in order to reach as wide an audience as possible.

The group has undoubtedly taken on some enormous challenges, both as individuals and as performers, but under Mike's expert guid-ance, each and every one of them is able to bring their own unique talent to the show.
Giving advice for potential improv comedi-ans, Chaka said, “just jump in, that's what I did. You never know until you try and although it's challenging, it's a lot of fun. It's a lot more fun than I thought it would be”.

With the hard work out of the way, the biggest challenge now will be on the day and adjusting to a new space, and a real, live audience.

Text & photos: Louise Wyndham

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Pirates of the Dotombori are:

• Mike Staffa (USA)
• Charles Frenzel (USA)
• Chaka Small (USA)
• Damon Jacob (USA)
• Kwame Alexander (Canada)
• Zhang Yuning (China)

Pirates of the Dotombori are always looking for new members, so if you think you've got what it takes, contact Mike Staffa at [email protected]

Pirates of the Dotombori will be performing on May 14th at Balabushka, 4F Nippo Mittera Kaikan, 2-9-5 Nishi Shinsaibashi. Doors open at 7:00pm and entry is free.
Tel: 06-6211-5369