“Can I touch it?” Nicole Cloutier asks with a nasally voice. “I want to touch it!”
“You can touch it,” replies Ben Kremer, with an exaggerated and disturbing enthusiasm. “But only if I can touch your hair, too.”
Awkward and tentative at first, the two genteelly muss each other’s hair. “I’m going to touch your eyebrows, too,” says Cloutier, 17. She reaches over with a single finger, and Kremer, 14, repeats the gesture,
Their instructor, Molly Cahen, rings a bell and barks, “Change how you touch your eyebrows!” They try several ways in rapid succession — rubbing, pinching, petting. The eyebrow shtick is weird. But it’s improv, after all, both hilarious and a little brave. This theater game, called “Take That Back,” is intended to push the young participants beyond their comfort zones.
It’s early in the week at a recent summer ComedyCamp run by ImprovBoston at its Cambridge center. Besides hosting performances, the theater group offers an array of classes. Among the most popular are its weeklong improv sessions for children and teens, which have been surging in popularity in recent years.
ImprovBoston teachers say that for a generation steeped in social-media sharing and surrounded by DIY entertainment on YouTube, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
In another theater game called “World’s Worst,” which the youngest group performs for the oldest group, the kids stand in a line onstage. When the spirit moves them, one steps forward to riff on the idea of “World’s Worst Fire Fighter.”
“Wait, wait! Before I save you, I need to text my friend,” says Oliver Buten, 9, miming looking at his cellphone. “What are these weird hats for?” asks another, Elwyn Jacobs, 8. Yes, even third-graders can be improv wizards.
“I like it because I can be funny if I want,” Jacobs later says. “I’m just a funny kid.”
The camps might seem to be only about having fun and generating laughs. But through the medium of collaborative comedy, ImprovBoston’s theater games and exercises also intend to hone social skills and boost confidence. At the heart of curriculum are the group’s “5 pillars”: support, trust, risk-taking, confidence, and fun.
Improv skills are “life skills” and being onstage without a safety net is about “learning to trust your voice,” says instructor Brendan Mulhern. Also kids learn to trust that everyone onstage will work together, making “offers’’ of new premises or comedic ideas that will advance scenes, and “accepting’’ offers on the fly. The idea: Don’t leave your fellow improv partner hanging. Up the ante; make it nuttier; keep the energy flowing.
“We say, ‘Be yourself, 100 percent,’ and people will follow you.” By the end of the week, says Mulhern, who leads the 11- to 13-year-olds, the kids go from “shy” to being “excited to work together and excited to be onstage.”
ComedyCamps are broken into three concurrent programs for three age groups, 8-10, 11-13, and 14-17. For youngest kids, being the goofball seems to come naturally, but as they get older, young people often adopt a veneer of reserve that can be hard to break through. “Growing up is hard. There are cliques and getting used to bodies. We’ve all been there,” Mulhern says. “We hope to prepare them for the trials of adolescence and to be proud of who they are.” Instructors repeat the expressions “Be supportive,” and “Get weird, have fun” all week long.
“I’ve always enjoyed making up characters and learning new skills,” says Cloutier, who has her own YouTube channel where she tests characters and comedy routines. She loves improv because it pushes her. Rather than just “dropping F-bombs” to be funny, “you have to be more creative,” she says. Plus, with improv, you make funny “with other people.”
Not all kids are as ambitious as Cloutier. Some have acted in school plays or are the family comedian. Others just want to try out improv for size. While the school isn’t teaching kids how to become the next Louis C.K. or “Saturday Night Live” breakout star, “these improv skills can be taken as a core and adapted” for sketch comedy and stand-up, says Jeff Perry, ImprovBoston’s comedy-school manager.
“Improv, it’s all about quick thinking, and you have to rely on each other,” says Monica Roy, 14. The experience is “actually not scary at all,” she says, because of the support everyone in her group offers. “We all make fools of ourselves together.’’
“It really helps to put yourself out there,” added Ana-Lauren Delgado, 14. “It builds character, and helps you be more confident and not worry about what other people think.”
ImprovBoston’s summer comedy programs began in 2004 with a single, weeklong high school camp that served 50 kids. “It’s grown every year from there,” says Mike Descoteaux, artistic director. In 2013 the camps served 200 children; this summer, by offering 10 programs for three age groups, the camps have spots for more than 500 students.
Descoteaux says you’ll find similar programs in all “the big comedy cities” — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto.
This summer at ImprovBoston, kids are coming from as far away as Greece.
In the last decade, “with technology at our fingertips,” a whole generation has been raised with the notion that “we are not just digesting content but creating it,” says Descoteaux, be it a video or a blog. “Improv becomes an essential tool in doing that.” Also, partly due to decades of companies like ImprovBoston offering improv in corporate and other settings, there’s been a “growing awareness of the craft and art of improv.”
Or as Cloutier says, perhaps with a twinkle of stars in her eyes, “Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, they started with improv.”
In an exercise called “Three Line Scenes,” two performers try to establish the relationship between two characters, and set up a situation that explains their interaction, in just three lines of dialogue. It can be tricky, and scary, getting all that up and running onstage so quickly, especially with no script or compass.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” says the first kid, Eric Andrews, 15, walking in from stage right.
“Enjoying Jamaica?” says the second, Nicholas Borelli, 14, with a vaguely Jamaican accent, walking onstage from the opposite direction.
“Want to buy these oranges?” Andrews replies. He makes a motion as if holding an orange, but immediately realizes that’s not working. So he turns his not particularly orange-y hand gesture downward, and adds, “ah . . . in this box?” This final, unexpected, and surreal turn elicits hoots of laughter.
What worked there, says teacher Cahen, was the specificity, which provides more comedic possibility for a fellow performer than something vague. “Food” is not funny. But “oranges” is funny. Same with “fish” and “chicken with ziti.” (For some reason, so is “alpaca,” which becomes an in-joke over the course of the week.)
These exercises take the kids from Cheez-Its to Robert Downey Jr. to a couple on a date. “It was so much fun to watch all of you building that world together,” says Cahen after the skit. “What also made that work?”
“We trusted each other,” offers Borelli. Lesson learned.
On Mondays, the instructors put on a show for the kids to show them what they’re building toward, and the different age groups also perform for each other during the week. The camp is capped by a Friday-afternoon performance by the combined group, letting the exercises they’ve been practicing fly one last time, this time in front of an audience of parents, friends, and ImprovBoston staff.
For some, it’s the first time they’ve appeared onstage. But even for seasoned performers, improv is a whole other kettle of fish. Or alpaca.
Backstage just before show time, Corey O’Rourke, an instructor of the 14- to 17-year-olds, offers last-minute advice. “If [your partner] looks at you with a voice of desperation, you’ll know he needs help.” As “Build Me Up Buttercup” by the Foundations and “It’s Magic” by the Cars blare on the sound system, the kids gather in a circle for a final warm-up exercise.
“Think about how far you’ve come in five days, from not knowing each other to putting on a show. We’re so proud of you,” Mulhern says to the assembled gang. “This is your show.”
Then the instructors, now hosts for the performance, introduce the three improv troupes to the audience. “Let’s make some noise, Boston!”
The kids burst from the back room, onto the stage. And they kill. Together.Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.