Three teens, two girls and a boy, clad in jeans and nondescript navy blue sweatshirts stand on a stage and wait for a cue from the audience. “France!” shouts a woman from a few rows back. The performers leap into action, willing to personify whatever they think means All Things French. “Oui!” shouts the boy. One of the girls contributes, “Escargots, but of course!” and the other girl spreads wide her arms, “But, of course, we go to the park-e’!”
These antics, and more, are immortalized on YouTube on a clip from imp4kids, the Web site for the Vineyard school kids improv group.
Donna Swift, theatre empresario, is founder of the Island adult improv group, called WIMP, and the school kids version, called IMP. “Improv is a major tool in theatre training,” she said in an interview. “It gets performers warmed up. I’ve seen little kids who are painfully shy come alive on stage.”
Ms. Swift should know. She’s been teaching theatre and directing plays and musicals for all ages of kids, from kindergarten through 12, in Island schools since 2002, when she started IMP. Now, in honor of the group’s 10th anniversary, the high school division of imp4kids will perform today — Friday, April 13 — at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.
The curtain will rise at 8 p.m. A star feature of the event will be the inclusion of three imp alumni: Ed Cisek who has performed at Chicago’s acclaimed IO Improv Theater, Ashley Peters who graduated last year from the Emerson College theatre program and Devin Cotter, a recent graduate of the Ithaca College film program. (As a historical footnote, it was Ithaca College that lent the Island its colorful summer stock company, Vineyard Players in the 1960s. Ithaca alumni included longtime Island theatre innovators Duncan Ross of Oak Bluffs and Jim Novak of West Tisbury.)
Ms. Swift is delighted that her three protÃ©gÃ©es performing on Friday, having made their bones in the real world, are willing, and in fact delighted, to return to share.
Asked what Ms. Swift instills in her fresh recruits to get them started in improv, she said, “I tell them to say yes! to whatever direction is given them, and to also say yes! to whatever life throws at them. There’s nothing like that positive response to get you motivated.”
The WIMP group started 18 years ago. The original name came from Wintertide Improv (a wonderful old coffee house at Five Corners back in the 1970s and 1980s). Improvised Theatre on Martha’s Vineyard is a not-for-profit organization providing “quality theatre education and performance opportunity” (so reads the Web site, imp4kids.com). Ms. Swift and her helpers develop “innovative improv troupes,” after-school classes, in-school programs, summer camps, plays, and original musicals such as last spring’s debut at the Edgartown School of Bluebeard, replete with ominous organ chords, lush orchestral strains, well-trained students’ voices, and a wardrobe befitting an off-Broadway company.
The focus is on creating artists and the creation of art itself.
Ms. Swift, originally a “summer kid,” graduated in 1990 from Emerson College with a theatre arts degree. She elected to move here year-round to expand children’s exposure to theatre on the Vineyard. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of her efforts, she is also elated that once again her high school troupe has been admitted to the Chicago Improv Festival. “I travel with kids to Chicago, Boston, Providence — all around the country, really.”
She confided that her hectic schedule caused her to miss the deadline for the Chicago tournament. She called the director, who assured her the kids had a green light into the program. “[They said] the Vineyard troupe is one of the best teams in the country.”
Ms. Swift instructs her kids on the heavy influence of improvisation in professional comedy and drama today: Larry David in his smash series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, selects his cast for its ability to improvise its way through each show, scene by scene. Ms. Swift also acknowledges Christopher Guest (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind) as a director who has essentially given improvisation a whole new look in movies.
Ms. Swift said, “My kids always find that some of their best lines are improvised.”
One of her troupe’s current set pieces is a half-hour drama called Animal Farm. “It could be in a hen house, it could be in a corral; the performers get a chance to plunge into various animal roles,” she said.
Friday the 13th — “Yes, I’m sure someone will call that out as a theme!” said Ms. Swift with a laugh — will involve five of the seven players in the high school troupe: Senior Della Burke (involved with IMP for 10 years and teaches at IMP camp), juniors Clare Boland (10 years with IMP, also teaches at camp), and Amy Fligor (five years with IMP), sophomore Aaron Wilson (eight years with IMP), and eighth grader (and Ms. Swift’s daughter), Alley Ellis, a 10-year IMP trouper.
The IMP anniversary show opens at 8 p.m. tonight at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets cost $18 at the door. For more information, go to the imp4kids Web site, or call 508- 939-9368.