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Five filthy years of the Focus Group

April 1, 2014
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Local improv comedy troupe celebrates anniversary

BREWER The Focus Group has become one of the area's entertainment mainstays over the past few years, with shows ranging from monthly appearances at their home base at the Next Generation Theatre in Brewer to gigs at venues all over the region and the state.

They're also about to turn five.

The Focus Group's fifth anniversary show will be taking place on April 4 at the Next Generation Theatre, home to so many of the group's performances over the years, at 8 PM. As part of the celebration, nearly every performer who has ever been part of a Focus Group show will be back on the stage.

You can expect the very best kind of chaos.

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I myself am a founding member of the Focus Group. For what it's worth, this anniversary would be newsworthy even had I no involvement whatsoever, though I think we can all agree that my presence lends the proceedings a certain cachet.)

The Focus Group began in January of 2009. A group of six friends Rich Kimball, Abby Kimball (nee Hayward), Adam Kuykendall, Kae Cooney and myself came together with the idea of trying to put together an improv group. We had all known one another for years through various performance-related endeavors, but this was a chance to try something new.

One of our number Mr. Abernethy had spent some time studying at Upright Citizen's Brigade in New York City, so he became our leader for those first few months, teaching us the basic structures of long-form improvisation.

When someone first hears 'improv,' their mind inevitably goes to something like 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' While that show is definitely improv and definitely funny that wasn't really what our group was going for. 'Whose Line' practices what is known as short-form improv, driven primarily by quick-hit jokes and gags.

Meanwhile, long-form the style we had chosen to undertake is rooted more in the realm of scenic development. It's much more about character development, taking time to build situations rather than simply stampeding toward a punch line.

So that was what we started doing in the auditorium of the Brewer Middle School.

It wasn't easy. Learning the nuts and bolts of the form was time-consuming and sometimes tedious work, though those occasional moments when everything clicked and we saw just how damned funny it could be made it all worthwhile. We learned the structures of the games and the nature of the rules including when those rules could (and should) be broken. As the weeks progressed, practices became more and more fun; we were slowly but surely developing the necessary mindset and skillset that improv required.

Don't get me wrong when we started, we were bad. Terrible, really. Not good at all. (Some might argue that that hasn't really changed, but they are mean.) It was a brand new experience for most of us, dramatically different than anything we had previously attempted to do.

That first show was in April of 2009 at the venue that would become our wonderful, generous headquarters, the Next Generation Theatre. We went in without the slightest notion of what to expect. Would people laugh? Would they hate us? Would they justsit there? We literally didn't know.

But then we started and people laughed. Then they laughed again. And laughed some more. And then were quiet for a while. But then there was more laughing. At the end, they applauded. And it was then that The Focus Group was born.

There are those who might view what we do as a bitcrass. They're right, of course; no topic is off-limits. And for the most part, audiences have proven more than willing to go along with us. In fact, the few times that we've had people get really offended didn't actually make a whole lot of sense to us. But one of our primary weapons in improv is fearlessness we can't be worried about how people will react to what we do or say. There simply isn't time. Things happen quickly and organically; all we can do is go along for the ride and see where we wind up. That mystery is part of the fun.

So what makes up a Focus Group show?

The Focus Group format has evolved considerably over the past five years. We've gone through many different arrangements, both in terms of games and in terms of players. Even the upcoming anniversary show which I can't stress enough, you really should come see is going to be different than anything we've ever done before. Mostly because of the gigantic number of people on the stage, but that's neither here nor there.

Here's a look at the elements that make up a typical Focus Group show:

La Ronde

This classic game one of our favorites has become our go-to for kicking things off. It's essentially a series of two-person scenes. The first two players call them A and B - will play out their scene, ideally laying the groundwork for what is to follow. When someone else has a sense of what they'd like to do next, they step up and tag out A, hence becoming player C. The setting and time may change, but B continues playing the same character. This next scene continues until someone else D comes to tag out player B. And so on and so forth. Every player does two consecutive scenes except for player A; his or her job is to return at the end of the scene, bringing back that original character and providing some sort of ending for the bit. Ideally a funny one, but we'll take what we can get.

Foursquare

This game is the most short-form improv that we do. It involves five players four on the floor and one serving as a director. The group of four will stand in a square two in front, two in back while the director solicits suggestions from the audience. The two players in front are given a suggestion; the group then rotates to the left, bringing one of the players from the back up to the front. This new pairing is also given a suggestion, then rotated left. New pairing, new suggestion, so on and so forth. After all pairings have received suggestions, the pair in front begins their scene. The group is then rotated left or right at the whim of the director; whichever pair is in front is the one doing the scene. It's a high-energy game that is a favorite of many audiences.

Harold

The Harold is the foundation of long-form improv in general and the Focus Group specifically; when we first started, we did Harolds and little else. Obviously, we've expanded our repertoire since then, but it's still a cornerstone of a Focus Group performance. The Harold was developed by improvisational pioneer Del Close in the 1960s; it follows a fairly straightforward 3x3 format. In Round One, there are three two-person scenes involving different players. These scenes are followed by what is called a 'group game;' separate from what has gone before, group games offer opportunities for stand-alone bits involving numerous players in what may or may not be a traditional scene. Round Two involves three more scenes, somehow inspired by or otherwise elevating the three scenes from Round One and involving more players; these scenes often begin with the same two people from the previous scene, but not always. Then there's another group game. Finally, we have Round Three, intended to be a quick-hit culmination of the three story threads built throughout the Harold. If they can all come together in a single resolution, so much the better. Again, we'll take what we can get.

Deconstruction

The deconstruction begins with a suggestion from the audience. We will use that suggestion to inspire a scene, usually featuring a fair number of players. That scene will serve as the foundation for the rest of the game, which consists of a fluid number of smaller scenes inspired by though not necessarily directly drawn from the initial scene/suggestion. It's the sort of game that goes until the original idea is exhausted; it's always at least three or four, but if we find particularly fertile ground, we've been known to go six or seven deep. Again, it's variations on a theme, but the goal is to find as many unexpected iterations as possible. Oh, and to be funny, but it's always a roll of the dice.

Those four are the foundation of a Focus Group show, but they are far from all we do. There are plenty of other games that make appearances from time to time. These include:

Broadway Musical

We occasionally introduce music into the proceedings. We get a suggestion from the audience for the name of a musical, then go ahead and make one up. We usually manage three songs with a grand finale though 'songs' is a relative term.

Dream/Love Story

We call up a member (or members) of the audience and ask them questions, either about their day or about their relationship. Using their answers, we offer up either a quick-hit reconstruction/interpretation of the information given.

A-Z

Fairly simple; we get a letter of the alphabet from the audience. The first line spoken will have that letter as the first letter in that line. We then proceed through the alphabet with each subsequent line.

Freeze Tag

A series of two-person scenes; whenever someone from the back line shouts 'Freeze,' the two players on stage do so. One of them is tagged out and the new player assumes their exact position, then takes the scene in a completely new direction.

Focus Group

A game of our own invention, Focus Group involves four players. One person leaves the room and a suggestion is solicited for something abstract an idea or concept rather than a physical thing. The person then reenters the room as the leader of a focus group aimed at working this new 'product.' The other three serve as members of the group; at the end, the leader must guess as to what the group's focus has been.

There have been others over the years, but as it stands right now, you'll see some combination of these elements if you attend a Focus Group show although we are working on some new games to be introduced in the coming months. You'll have to stay tuned.

-

Over the years, we've had a lot of changes in personnel. Sam Kuykendall, Adam's brother, approached us after that very first show and expressed an interest in perhaps getting involved. He's now arguably the most indispensable member of the group. Founding members have come and gone. Adam's time is consumed by work, graduate school and fatherhood, so he's less of a presence than he once was. Kae and Abby have both spent time on maternity leave as they've expanded their families. Mike Abernethy is off on the other side of the world, teaching English at a school in Kuwait. 

Jason Preble and Tim Bissell joined us after our first year. Jason is now a mainstay of the group four years strong - while Tim left us only last summer to follow his dream of starting a brewery. Anthony Severance was with us for a couple of years, but he's currently attending school in New York. Dennis Price whose Capital City Improv is going gangbusters in the capitol region spent a goodly amount of time with us as well. And local theatrical favorite Arthur Morison has taken a few turns on the Focus Group stage as well. Not to mention our own personal maestro Phil Burns, who brings our musical improvisations to life and whose level of ivory-tickling talent is far too high for the likes of us.

And lest we forget, mention must be made of the group's newest members, the folks who have joined us just in the past few months. Dustin Sleight, Adam Cousins and Katie Toole have proven to be welcome additions in the short time that we have had them on board.

There have been plenty of other folks who have shared the stage with the Focus Group, however. We have played host to local media celebrities such as Mike Dow and Mike Elliot and Danny Cashman. We have shared time with rising local comedians such as Ryan Waning and Adam Hatch. And we've been joined by a number of other improv groups, including Farmington's Teachers Lounge Mafia and the University of Maine's Improv Insanity, as well as taking our show on the road to the Portland Improv Festival.

All in all, it has been a fantastic half-decade. The Focus Group has been doing their level best to make people laugh for the past five years and look forward to many more. Come wish us a happy birthday on April 4; if you're lucky, we might even curse at you.

('Reunion: The Focus Group's 5th Anniversary Show' will take place at the Next Generation Theatre on April 4 at 8 PM. Tickets are $5.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 April 2014 15:30

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