Harvard may have won that other Beanpot, but it doesn’t stand a chance in this one.
The College Comedy Festival is back this year at the ImprovBoston theater in Central Square, Cambridge. The tournament — known in the improv world as the Comedy Beanpot — is in its 13th year with 14 New England student teams (none of which is Harvard) facing off for the glory (and a big, shiny trophy) that comes with being named the Beanpot champion. But like the student participants who will perform Feb. 16-18 before audiences of paying customers, the festival doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“I think the idea of competitive comedy is a little bit weird,” Mac Gostow, lead producer of ImprovBoston and head tournament honcho, says. “It’s meant to encourage and praise the students as opposed to making them fight to the death to make people laugh harder.”
Improv comedy is a spontaneous artform requiring comics to invent their punch lines on the spot before an audience. While the content is original, the festival is structured around three events: a short-form round where teams pick a “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” style game from a hat to perform; a long-form round of more story-driven scene work; and games where performers stand in line and tell pun-based jokes in turn.
Though the general outline of the show is planned, the performers have no idea what they will say or do until they’re onstage doing it. Understandably, this makes preparation a little complicated.
Enter: Boston College’s Committee for Creative Enactments, known around campus as the CCE. They’ve participated in the festival every year since their oldest members can recall but haven’t claimed the trophy since 2014. Their style is fast, loud, and random, and their practices can be heard echoing through the third floor of Gasson Hall most Sunday afternoons.
Passersby can hear snippets of scenes made up entirely from the performers’ quirky sensibilities. In one moment, someone is a tour guide at the Celestial Seasonings tea factory; in the next, another person is trying to return a shirt with a receipt shaved into the back of her head.
Marianne Sevilla, 20, one of the group’s coaches, says she views the CCE as an underdog this year.
“We’re a little out of our element,” Sevilla says. “Beanpot is a time to really get into improv. It’s a good thing because all the other teams are really high-level performers so just by being a part of it we get to learn a lot.”
The CCE holds open practices three times a week and selects a subset of dedicated comedians to send to the competition every year. They’ve been practicing most of the 22 possible short-form game options to try and develop a level of comfort with each (acting out a scene forward and backward, limiting the number of words they can use, and lip synching along as someone offstage does their voice, for example) but they say there’s really no way to be fully prepared.
After every game or scene, they offer each other tips or tweaks that could have made the exercise funnier, or more fleshed out.
Another coach with the group, Connor Desmond, 21, says a lot of the preparation is about putting their comedy into words and trying to make it tangible.
“We want to create a world that could exist.” Desmond says. “We need to know who your character is, why they’re there, what was their relationship to another character, and was that relationship well developed. These are things we can point to and say, ‘Here’s something we can work on.’ ”
In the competition, those qualities are exactly what the judges, gleaned from the ranks of ImprovBoston performers, are looking for. Teams are ranked based on their adherence to a cohesive narrative, their skill in creating a realistic world (a difficult feat without props, costumes, special lighting, or cues), and of course, the laugh factor.
‘You have so much raw, natural, unbridled energy, in the room. [The students] bring so much passion to the craft, and they do it because they love doing it.’Mac Gostow, lead producer of ImprovBoston and producer of the College Comedy Festival
Though there is ultimately a winner at the end of the weekend, Gostow (an alum of the 2013 Beanpot champions from Gordon College) says there aren’t any losers. He emphasizes the “festival” aspect and wants to celebrate what he calls the unique energy that each team brings.
“You have so much raw, natural, unbridled energy, in the room” Gostow says. “[The students] bring so much passion to the craft, and they do it because they love doing it. . . . There are so many performers who have been doing this for so long in Boston, and they just don’t have the same kind of awe and sense of wonderment when it comes to comedy.”
To that end, teams are also invited to participate in performance “jams” with members from other teams and to take workshops and sit in on panels with performing members from the ImprovBoston mainstage. Gostow says in the four years he’s been producing the festival, he’s tried to make it a more welcoming atmosphere and a funnel for students to become ImprovBoston mainstage performers after they graduate.
Last year’s champions, the Dimple Divers from Wheaton College, agree that winning isn’t everything. Team member Christine Evers, 20, says the main focus of the Divers is to learn new techniques and enjoy performing.
“When I think of improv I think of creating new worlds and destroying new worlds and letting your imagination run wild and having fun with people that you love,” she says.
Sevilla agrees. “ There’s a hallmark of our group and this whole competition,” she says. “It’s friends first, improv second.”Carly Sitrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.