The upper level of the downtown Pikes Perk is packed. In a space meant to hold around 40 comfortably, more than 70 people squeeze into chairs and couches, or stand along the walls. The crowd at Improv Colorado's first show is varied; there are as many families with their kids as teenagers on dates.
Through its entire hour-long show, the improv comedy troupe's skits depend on audience interaction and suggestions. Some bits tank. Others are smart and hilarious.
In one, Dan Lannin, Improv Colorado's co-founder, plays a woman getting ready for a date. Rather than acting delicate and feminine, Lannin stomps onto the scene, fists balled at his sides, his arms creating a cage effect.
"Edwina, why did you cut off all your hair?" Lannin's co-player asks in mock disbelief.
"I'm on a journey," Lannin roars.
Five (very) alive
Four years ago, only one improv comedy troupe existed in Colorado Springs: Stick Horses in Pants. (More on them later.) Today, with SHiP and Improv Colorado, there are at least five groups including the RiP, Suburban Stage Munkys and Felonious Monks.
Though Improv Colorado is the newest group on the scene, the 28-year-old Lannin is no stranger to improv comedy. In Michigan, he created and worked on a comedy team that lasted for six years. While living in Chicago and Los Angeles, he was part of thriving theater communities. When he moved to Colorado Springs in 2006, Lannin immediately saw an opportunity.
"Everyone and their brother doesn't have an act here, so we can carve out a niche," Lannin says. "Colorado Springs has a smaller-town atmosphere, so it's easier to make connections with people and places."
And while five troupes in the local area might seem excessive, each group brings its own flair. The RiP has recently developed a long-form comedy style that intertwines themes or characters through numerous scenes, similar to a play but without a script. The Suburban Stage Munkys mix their improv shows with rehearsed sketch comedy skits, while the Felonious Monks use strictly improv short-form and perform at local bars, a style they say brings comedy to the "common man."
The mixture is great for the Springs, says Margarita Archilla, a member of the RiP. "We want to get improv out there for the public, to really get people to see that this is a viable option for entertainment in the Pikes Peak region," she says.
Setting an example
A group of friends formed Stick Horses in Pants in 2004 and since then, they've steadily built a reputation. They have a monthly show at the Colorado Springs School.
SHiP's performance at the Colorado Springs School is funny, and although their crowd isn't as diverse as for Improv Colorado downtown, they're more polished and comfortable on stage. Their teamwork is unmistakable several times during their show, members who aren't part of a scene will burst onstage to "rescue" a fellow player. This, according to Hunter Willis, one of SHiP's co-founders, is what sets Stick Horses in Pants apart.
"We spend a lot of time together outside of practice," says Willis. "We've built friendships and connections so when we're on stage together, we're more in tune with each other and how we might react to certain situations."
Though SHiP has more experience, there are many similarities between their performance and Improv Colorado's. Both groups focus on short-form comedy, in which the audience suggests a certain element, like a character trait, and the players use that suggestion to construct short scenes within a game similar to the show Whose Line is it Anyway? Both troupes also emphasize a family-friendly experience.
The PG rating is partly because of the Springs' conservative nature but also because dirty humor is a comedic crutch, says Lannin.
"It's too easy to throw in an F-word or to start humping something," he says. "And yeah, people will laugh, but it doesn't really stretch you creatively."
Willis agrees, saying clean humor makes the players think harder about their jokes. "Plus," he says, "there really seems to be a marketplace here for family-friendly comedy."
With so many improv comedy troupes in town, and a head-to-head battle this weekend between SHiP and the RiP, it's easy to view the teams as rivals competing against each other. But for Willis and Lannin, it's more about the entertainment.
"There's a real void for arts in Colorado Springs at least, that's the perception," says Willis. "Improv is a great way to perform on a shoestring budget. It's a lot of fun, and the more the merrier."
Lannin actually sees an even higher purpose.
"Rather than viewing it as a competition where one improv team will emerge as the winner," he says, "I'd like to see how we can all work together to make improv more interesting to the community."
Venue 515, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs
Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $6-$8; call 685-1861 or visit improvcolorado.wordpress.com for more.
Suburban Stage Munkys
Underground, 110 N. Nevada Ave.
Friday, June 20, 8-10 p.m.
Free; call 578-7771 or visit myspace.com/suburbanstagemunky
No shows scheduled at press time. Visit myspace.com/feloniousmonkscomedy for more.