Impulse: OCT's Young Professional Improv Troupe takes you to Funny Town

Physical and off-the-cuff, improv comedy is a blast to watch.

The great comic actor Milton Berle once said, "Laughter is an instant vacation," and the talented high school actors of the Oregon Children's Theater's Young Professionals Company want to take you on a trip to Funny Town.

This weekend and next, YP's Impulse Improv Troupe is performing hilarious off-the-cuff sketch comedy shows at its Studio Theater at Northeast 20th Avenue and Sandy Boulevard in Portland.

It's a show that depends heavily on input from the audience to inspire the cast and get the hilarity going.

"I'm excited to see how they interact with us and how they start to play with us, because the audience is such a big part of our shows," says Emma Fulmer, a Young Professional in her first year with Impulse. "Whatever they come up with, we have to base our games off of."

"Every single game we use audience suggestions," says Hank Sanders, another Impulse member. "And we work with the audience to try to make this a show that the whole room can do."

If you've ever seen "Who's Line Is It Anyway" during its many seasons on ABC or in reruns, you know the kind of "games" Sanders and Fulmer are referring to. If you're unfamiliar, you're missing out. Improv is a frantic, funny, dynamic kind of stage show, where scenes can, and often do, pivot without notice -- where current events are skewered, physical comedy is revered, and the actors are all thinking on their feet and reacting along with the audience.

Impulse's improv games can run the gamut from short sketches and prop-based scenes to song-and-dance numbers and even long-form improv, something that's pretty much unheard of for actors this young.

"It's much harder," says Hank Sanders, when talking about the long-form scenes. "You never really see kids doing this type of improv."

Sanders, a junior from Portland, and Fulmer, a sophomore from West Linn, are two of the eight actors making up this season's Impulse troupe. This is Sanders's second year.

"It's an unparalleled experience in this city, really," says Sanders. "The cool (thing) about Impulse is: we're actors first."

Every Young Professional has to audition to make it into the program. The theater company pulls talented actors from all over Oregon and Southwest Washington. Those members put on two productions every year, usually plays that are geared toward middle- and high-school-age kids.

Those actors are often the first options TV and film casting agents look toward when they bring their productions to the Portland area. Sanders was in a couple of episodes of the Netflix show "Everything Sucks!", which filmed in Oregon City last year.

Then, some of those Young Professionals also audition for Impulse.

"It's one of the most fun and entertaining things that I actually get to do," says Fulmer. She's been onstage for much of her life, but acting came later.

"I started as a ballerina, and I danced up until I was about 7 years old," she says.

She started to lose interest, so her mom put her into an acting class instead.

"I found out that -- oh my gosh -- I can be onstage and actually use my voice for once. And I really fell in love with doing that," she said.

At a recent rehearsal, Fulmer was trading one liners with her cast-mates during warm-ups and scene practices. While Fulmer called out Portlanders' infamous resistance to umbrellas and Sanders dropped a one-liner about cheeseburgers, other cast members showed their personalities, too. Liberty High School's Bryce Duncan was bursting with energy and played some piano; Devlin Farmer waxed sardonic and showed a natural talent for physical comedy; Emma Stewart embodied true professionalism and displayed a calm comfort at the mic; Onar Smith was self-deprecating and engaged the audience with an emcee's natural charm; and David VanDyke eschewed words as he personified an explosion and stormy weather.

The team seems tightknit, and they really listen to each other. It's something Impulse Director Jay Flewelling and Assistant Director Blake Wales have emphasized over months of rehearsals.

Flewelling writes:

They come to me with excellent stage skills: projection, blocking, voice, volume, emoting, etc. Therefore when we warm up, it is getting into the "YES" mode with your castmates. Gelling together to start group mind. This team has been working together, learning each other, and in many ways studying each other for months; the warm ups are calling upon that history, knowledge, chemistry, and trust they have within the group.

And if it seems odd that improvisational acting needs rehearsing, you're not alone.

"Yeah, people don't really get that," says Sanders. "People always kind of laugh when I tell the kids at school that, 'Oh, yeah, I gotta go to rehearsal for improv.' It seems counterintuitive, but it's actually integral to what we do."

"We meld and our brains work in this clockwork motion, and we all understand each other," marvels Fulmer, "And it's so great to be able to stop and look at these people and say, 'Wow! We are making amazing art, we are hilarious, we are entertaining.'"

The 2018 Impulse Improv show runs through May 20.

  • Friday, May 11 and May 18: 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, May 12 and May 19: 7 p.m.
  • Sunday, May 13 and May 20: 2 p.m.
  • And a special show, May 25 at Curious Comedy Theater, pitting Impulse 11 (this year's iteration) vs. Impulse Alumni, starting at 9:30 p.m.

Tickets are still available.

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