A psychiatrist was killed with a garden gnome at the Sphinx and no one said a word.
That’s because the “crime” occurred at Whitworth University during the Nov. 6 rehearsal of Cool Whip – a student-led improv group.
The 10-member troupe played chain murder, a game in which one player is given a location, a profession and a murder weapon. The player must communicate these things without speaking to a player who joins him from offstage. When the second player thinks he’s figured out the three key things, he “kills” the first with the imaginary weapon and another offstage player joins the scene, and so on. All the players correctly guessed the profession and location, but by the end of the scene the murder weapon had become a rototiller. And that is the fun of improv; neither the actors nor the audience knows what will happen next.
“Remember, when you’re dead, stay dead,” advised Cool Whip director Ramsey Troxel, 21. “It’s really distracting if the audience sees you moving around.”
Kevin Benson teaches improvisational acting at Whitworth and serves as the group’s adviser. He said Cool Whip was formed in 1995 by students who’d taken the improv class and wanted to continue the fun.
“Improv is all about listening, taking big risks and being bold,” he said. “That’s how good things happen.”
The troupe is supported by the theater department, and Troxel said this year the director’s position was funded by the McDonald Family Scholarship.
Auditions are held at the beginning of each school year and a group of eight to 10 students are selected. “Each year the group’s personality changes as students come and go,” Benson said.
Like many of the players, Alyson King, the troupe’s only freshman, enjoyed improv in high school.
“I love being able to connect with a group of people and make them laugh,” she said. “Improv helped me learn to express myself.”
But unlike many in the troupe, she’s not a theater major. “I’m a chemistry major,” King said, “but this is a passion of my mine and I didn’t want to lose when I came to college.”
Indeed, Benson said improv skills are transferable to careers outside of theater. “Improv forces you to listen really, really hard and to respond honestly and openly to what’s in front of you.”
Cool Whip member Caleb Prechsel is an English major who plans to be a high school teacher. “It’s a challenge to think on my feet and be in the moment,” he said. “As a teacher I’m sure there will be times when I’ll have to improvise.”
Troupe members agree improv boosts self-confidence.
“Improv is about learning how to survive your failures and recover,” Benson said.
One piece of advice he always gives his students is, “Don’t try to be funny, just be yourself and it will be funnier than you can imagine.”
And that fun is attractive. Cool Whip’s first campus performance this year was standing room only. The group also performs and leads workshops at area schools and churches and last year traveled to Seattle to participate in an annual collegiate improv festival.
“At first improv is terrifying, but really anyone can do it,” said Emily Shick, a senior in her second year with Cool Whip. “The best part is you get to pretend on stage – you get to be a kid again.”