Barbeque Kitten

On the Grill and Off the Cuff
by Jonathan Wright
Photography by Josiah D. Williams

"The best thing about improv is that no matter how bad your show is, it's only 30 minutes, and never exists again,” declares Mick Napier, actor, director, author and artistic consultant for Second City, the leading brand in improv-based sketch comedy. “The worst thing is no matter how good your show is, it's only 30 minutes, and never exists again.”

For quite a few of us, the idea of public speaking ranks among our top fears. Yet our speeches are typically prepared in advance, our jokes tried and tested before we ever have to face a crowd. The notion of getting in front of an audience without prepared remarks—and with the sole intention of making them laugh—is, quite frankly, many people’s idea of a nightmare. It’s not easy to think so quickly on your feet—but that’s exactly what an improv performer must do every time he or she walks onto the stage.

The Ranks of Kittens
Founded in 2003, Barbeque Kitten is an improv and sketch comedy troupe, created and run by Bradley University students. Its current president, Brad Krafft, has been involved with the troupe since he arrived at Bradley two and a half years ago, with no improv experience to speak of. “I’ve always been kind of a class clown,” he reflects. “I had done plays…and I was never really afraid to speak in front of people. And I’d always been a diehard fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

“So when I heard there was an improv troupe on campus…I just thought to myself, if nothing else, I can learn. But it ended up being something I am really passionate about.”

Currently, there are 10 “kittens”—a manager who handles booking and finances, eight actors and a musician who occasionally accompanies them. There are four theater majors, as one might expect, but the ranks of kittens are diverse—with English, mechanical and electrical engineering, and biochemistry/psychology majors also among them.

Krafft, a double-major in accounting and economics, may have the most uncharacteristic background of all. “People kind of laugh when I tell them that,” he chuckles. “I guess I have a healthy left and right side of my brain.” He believes that this diversity only enhances the group’s perspective. “We have a lot of different mindsets…and that makes our dynamic interesting. I really like the chemistry we have.”

Meet the Kittens!
Click here to meet the 10 members of Bradley University's improv comedy troupe.

Anyone Can Play…
Every Wednesday from 10:30pm to midnight, the members of Barbeque Kitten can be found outside Bradley Hall hosting open rehearsals. “They’re basically indefinite tryouts,” says Krafft. And they’re open to the public—“Anyone can come, anyone can play,” as the group’s slogan goes.

“We start with a lesson or two,” he explains. “Then we play games to build on those lessons, and try to give some tips and pointers and make some observations.”

“When we like what they’re doing, or if we think they have potential, we’ll ask them to Monday night rehearsals,” says Krafft, which are closed rehearsals at which prospective kittens can work with the troupe in a more intimate setting. “We see how they work with us, and we critique them, along with each other.” After several closed rehearsals, the troupe votes on whether to include him or her in a show. After two shows, they’ll vote on their official inclusion into the troupe—a unanimous vote is required.

Barbeque Kitten lists four shows on its spring 2012 schedule, all of them in Bradley’s Neumiller Lecture Hall. But the group does venture off-campus from time to time—for its annual show at Richwoods High School, for example, or for a one-off performance for grade-school kids. “The shows are typically on campus, but we are more than willing to do them outside of campus,” Krafft says.

…And Hilarity Ensues
Barbeque Kitten shows typically run from 90 minutes to two hours. Among his duties as president, Krafft serves as host, in addition to preparing games for the shows. “I’ll formulate a list of about 14 games. We’ll write a sketch for the introduction, but the rest is essentially us free-balling it.”

SKETCHING THE TERMS
Brad Krafft of Barbeque Kitten explains five common terms in improv.

“Yes, And.”
A phrase that explains the basic attitude every actor in an improv scene should have. You need to agree with everything your fellow actors say on stage whenever they make a suggestion. If you disagree or shoot down their idea, that leaves everyone on stage looking awkward while you scramble for another direction to take the scene. There are exceptions, but typically this is a good rule to live by.

Gift Giving: The act of giving a fellow actor an opportunity to shine in a scene, whether it's being funny or merely coming onto stage with something to work with. It can be a character or plot decision that you make that benefits everyone on stage.

Gimmick. A recurring joke in a scene. Using your best judgment, if a joke goes well, it can be appropriately used again in the same scene. It is also the aspect of each game that makes the scenario quirky or comical.

Pull. An idea or suggestion from a crowd member that is used as the main theme of a game.

Button. The final joke on which the host will end the scene. This is one of the trickier aspects of hosting games: if the crowd receives a joke well, you need to decide whether to end the scene or let it continue. 

Games are the building blocks of improv—the basic structures around which the actors build their scenes. The group will typically cycle through 30 or more of them in a semester. As host, it’s up to Krafft to decide when to blow the whistle to end a game. “You can just kind of tell when the crowd is at their peak laughing.”

“We always play Freeze in the beginning,” he explains. “That’s where there’s two actors on stage, and one of the kittens will yell ‘Freeze,’ and they’ll freeze the scene. Another person comes in, takes the position they made when they froze and starts a completely different theme. And that just goes on continuously.”

Another favorite is called Shoulda Said. “It’s just two people acting out a scene,” says Krafft. “At any time, the host will blow the whistle, and whoever said something last has to change their last sentence, which alters the scene.

“So I’ll say, ‘Oh, I dropped my shoe.’ They’ll blow the whistle, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I dropped my hat.’ And they’ll blow the whistle, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I dropped my arm.

“They’ll blow the whistle two or three times each turn, and hilarity ensues,” he says. “That’s the plan, anyway. It’s kind of a tough game. You have to be able to think pretty quickly on your feet—which, I guess, is what improv’s all about.”

Playing by the Rules
Every improv performer’s approach to their craft is unique, and none are necessarily right or wrong. Various “rules of improv” can be found on the Web, in books and elsewhere; the majority focus on maintaining communication and rapport with one’s fellow actors. No two sets of rules are exactly alike, but they exist for good reason—as a solid foundation for beginners and as a standard for best practices. But like many rules, they can often be discarded once they’ve been mastered.

According to Krafft, denial is the number one reason that scenes go bad. “Saying no in an improv game can lead your group to fall flat on its face,” he explains. “If somebody tries to bring an idea forward and you just shut it down, it leaves everybody feeling and looking awkward on stage.

“Another thing we do is called gift-giving. This is basically setting someone up to look good or to do something funny. You give them an opening, or an opportunity to come into the scene and do something.” This attention to one’s fellow performers is essential in what Krafft calls “a team sport, completely and wholly.”

Making It All Up
Improvisational comedy covers a wide swath of territory. “For some people, it comes from what they say,” notes Krafft. “For others, it’s in the body language.”

There’s both short- and long-form improvisation—long-form, of course, requires a great deal more preparation. “In short games, it’s kind of easy to just tell punch lines all the time,” says Krafft. “Since your game’s only going to be two to five minutes long, not everything needs to really tie together.

“But when you do long-form, you don’t really know how it’s going to end,” he continues. “You want to set yourself up for a good ending, so you need to put a lot more thought into [it]. You need to communicate a lot better, and there needs to be more depth to the communication.”

Sometimes an actor will develop a recurring “stock character” based on positive reception from the audience. “It can become kind of stale if all you do is speak and present yourself as yourself,” notes Krafft. But even with stock characters and the additional preparation required by the long form, improv remains its spontaneous self: “Everything is still completely made up.”

(Dead) Kittens Take Flight
On average, Barbeque Kitten loses one to three members each year to graduation. “And that’s typically about the number we hope to take under our wing and get started,” says Krafft.

Upon graduation, many kitten alumni have continued with improv as a hobby, if not as a career. Some are in show business. Some have moved out of state; others remain in Peoria. All are de facto members of the “Dead Kittens Society.” Outside of an annual get-together in Chicago, the group doesn’t do a whole lot, but its close-knit members tend to stay in touch.

As for Krafft, he hopes to land a job in Chicago and continue learning the craft—“maybe at the Improv Olympics or Second City,” he says. “It’s something I’m passionate about, and it’s also a nice outlet from the ‘real world.’ So I would like to hold onto it if I can.”

For show dates and more info, visit bbqk.com. To learn more about the art of improv, visit improvencyclopedia.org. iBi

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