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A decade of ‘Yes, and…’: Improv troupe The Focus Group marks 10 years

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The current lineup of The Focus Group. The current lineup of The Focus Group. (photo by Adam Kuykendall)

BREWER – One of the region’s entertainment mainstays is turning 10.

Improv comedy troupe The Focus Group is marking its 10-year anniversary with a celebratory performance. “Our Big Dumb Decade” will take place on April 19 at the Next Generation Theatre in Brewer – the longtime home of the group. The show starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $5.

The show will feature members of the group both past and present, as well as a number of special guests who have shared the stage with the Focus Group at various times over the past decade.

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, the writer of this story – and this note – is a founding member of The Focus Group. He is also not even a little bit sorry to be taking advantage of his position to promote this auspicious anniversary.)

The Focus Group began in January of 2009. A group of six friends – Rich Kimball, Abby Kimball (nee Hayward), Adam Kuykendall, Kae Cooney, Mike Abernethy 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.

From co-founder Rich Kimball:

“I was backstage during a show at the Theatre At Monmouth, talking about improv with a couple of cast members. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was something that could be both fun and challenging, and also might fill a void in the Bangor area. I called Mike Abernethy, who had studied with the Upright Citizens Brigade, and discussed what it would take to get a group off the ground. Then it was just a matter of finding other co-conspirators. We put together a short list of friends we enjoyed doing theatre with and the “original six” were formed!”

And away we went.

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 and storytelling, taking time to build situations rather than simply stampeding toward a punch line.

And 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. We focused on playing to the top of our intelligence and embracing the agreement-and-heightening philosophy of “Yes, and…” 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 people might argue that that hasn’t really changed, but some people 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 wonderful Next Generation Theatre, a venue that would become a real home for us thanks to the endless generosity and support of Tracey Marceron. We went in without the slightest notion of what to expect. Would people laugh? Would they hate us? Would they just … sit 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. Thus, The Focus Group was born.

For the most part, audiences have proven more than willing to go along with us; we’ve long felt that no topic is truly off-limits, though we’ve gotten pretty good at self-regulation. In fact, the few times that we’ve had people truly take offense didn’t 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.

In the years that have passed since that first performance, we’ve seen quite a lot of change. Over the course of scores of shows, we’ve had the opportunity to perform at venues all over the state. Our membership has shifted and evolved as people’s lives took them hither and yon.

We’ve gotten to be a part of the explosive growth of improv here in Bangor and in Maine in general. We’ve shared the stage with the talented folks of ImprovAcadia at their winter home here in Bangor (IA founders/owners Jen Shepherd and Larrance Fingerhut will be among our guests for “Our Big Dumb Decade,” as will longtime IA veteran Amy Roeder). We’ve seen new improv groups form and grow here in the area and watched as some of our former members made significant contributions to the blossoming scene in southern Maine.

We’ve found a second home in the beautiful ballroom at the Bangor Arts Exchange, allowing us a different venue in which to offer up our brand of improv weirdness – big thanks to Josh Gass and Launchpad for that partnership with BAE. And this November will mark the sixth year of the Improv ME Festival, a curated event created by the Focus Group to bring together improv talent from all over New England.

The Focus Group has ebbed and flowed just like any other collaborative creative effort that unfolds over the course of a decade. Situations change. People change. We’ve gone through it all together, with people getting married and having children and all the other stuff that comes with growing up. But we’re still here.

I’m proud of this weird thing that we’ve created. Building something that lasts 10 years is an impressive feat. And we’ve become a real part of the cultural fabric of our town. A niche part, to be sure, but no less significant because of that.

Here’s to another decade of “Yes, and…”

-

In an effort to lend even more context and perspective to this anniversary, I’ve asked the current members of the Focus Group to talk a little bit about what they love about improv. Some are succinct, while others go on at length, but all are passionate.

Rich Kimball (Co-founder)

I love that every show is new and offers the possibility of everything from magic to disaster. I love that, to be successful, you have to depend on your scene partners and having worked together for such a long time, we know each other’s rhythms, as well as strengths, and for the most part have our own shorthand that help us often know intuitively where to go. And I love that the audience is part of the team as well. There are few better feelings than when you can sense that their wheels are turning too and are trying to guess which direction a scene will take.

A great memory: I will never forget our very first show at Next Generation Theatre. We had no idea if this thing would work and whether it would be funny to anyone but us. Early in the show, the power went out and with it, all the lights. Rather than stop the show, we pulled a major “yes, and.” The darkness became a part of the scenes, the audience reaction was phenomenal, and we never looked back. Even when the lights came back on.

Abby Kimball (Co-founder)

One of the many many joys I have found doing improv is working with such a diverse range of other improvisers. Do the majority have some background in theater arts? Sure, but so much of improv is getting out of your comfort zone and letting go of form and structure, so whether you’re an actor, a teacher, a lawyer, a therapist, you can find freedom and joy in this kind of release of humor! 

Kae Cooney (Co-founder)

What I love about the Focus Group? We are a family now. We have been a part of each other lives through this decade. We’ve seen each other become adults, get married, become pet parents, become children parents, buy houses, have to do adulting. I always liken us to a rock band (mostly because I will never be in a rock band, this is my pretend rock band). We laugh, we fight and we sometimes want to kill each other, then we get up on stage and do what we love, and all is right with the world.

Also, it’s my pick-up-basketball game (again, I will never be in a basketball game, this is my pretend basketball game). We meet up once a week, we play games, we laugh until we pee ourselves (well I do anyway, after birthing two children, it happens) and then we go drink beer together. There is not a better Monday night to be had.

Jason Preble (9 years)

I think the thing I love about improv is that it still surprises and entertains me the same way it did when I was in the audience. When you think you know where someone is going, and they completely subvert your expectations in a wonderful way.

I think some of my favorite things are little details that performers throw into their characters. It’s a janitor setting his imaginary mop in an imaginary bucket, and just as you think “Well that would likely tip over” he catches it as its falling, while maintaining character and moving on with the scene. Or a dog scientist that queries the nature of his own existence one hypothesis at a time … and all of this makes no sense to the people reading this because describing improv is like telling someone about an amazing dream you had. It doesn’t make sense to them, but you have to trust me. I was there when Koko the Gorilla signed his first word and when the entire 80-year history of a non-existent burger chain was created on the spot.

It has been nine years and it’s still baffling to me that people can do these things, on the spot, in front of people, and I get to do it with them.

Adam Cousins (5 years)

As far as what I love about improv, I would say that being able to perform has always been important to me. Sometimes, the time required for a play just isn't feasible with work, so this serves as a good creative outlet in lieu of that. And it's nice to make people laugh. I like to think people leave our shows feeling a little better than they did when walked in.

Katie Toole (5 years)

As an audience member and a performer, you never really know what is going to happen, and that is the little dangerous root of improv: like a haunted house, everyone's going to come out fine, but there will have been some surprises, most of them cathartic.

The thrill of doing any improv for me I think is that you have the same gratification of communicating with the cast and with the audience as you do with any stage performance, but the boundary between "us" on stage and "them" out there is less distinct, and more urgent. It can also honestly be terrifying. I've gotten more stage fright before doing an improv show than scripted shows because of the uncertainty, and the feeling that, to some extent, a part of you never gets fully disguised by the characters you play.

What I appreciate about being able to perform with the Focus Group is that I get to keep a toe in the stage universe all the time. Where playing a role in a scripted show feels like a shorter, more intense burst of preparation and performance, improv is a more steady, constant, lower-intensity process of sharpening skills and building your team. I also appreciate that improvisation has the potential to make space for all types. When improv is at its best, the performers have opportunities to play the roles we wish we'd be cast in - or the roles we have no business being cast in. Because the show will only ever be there in that moment, improv is both a lot of freedom and somehow also a lot of pressure … but that's what makes it unique for the performer and exciting for the audience.

Michelle Weatherbee (2 years)

I enjoy the thrill of going out of my comfort zone with a character and just when I start to feel confident, the scene goes in a completely different direction than what I had pictured and I have no choice but to go along for the ride.

Dave Pelletier (2 years)

One thing I like about improv is it’s a chance to lock eyes with and share intimate times with my friends on stage. One more memorable moment was the full two minutes Al and I stroked each other’s hair, neither of us facing toward or performing for the audience.

(Editor’s note: It was magical.) 

Aimee Gerow (2 years)

One thing that I love about improv … you can come at it (the practice) from anywhere and still be great. I’ve gotten to know a lot of improvisers in the area, Focus Group and others, and you’ve got people who have been strictly improvising for a decade and actors like myself who’ve been doing other stage work for decades and people who’ve never done anything theatrically-adjacent before. But it doesn’t matter in improv, everyone brings their talents and their stuff to the table and makes weird stuff happen.

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