3 August 2018: Spontaneous humour: Yale-NUS student and alumni improvisers at the Singapore Improv Festival 2018

By Kevin Low

From 15 – 18 March 2018, performers from Yale-NUS College’s improvisational theatre (improv) troupes participated in the Singapore Improv Festival 2018. Held at the Aliwal Arts Centre, the festival hosted a variety of shows and workshops over four days, with improv performers (known as improvisers) flying in from various countries in Asia, including the Philippines, South Korea, China, and Hong Kong. This is the second Singapore Improv Festival organised by The Improv Company, Singapore’s biggest improv school, founded by NUS alumni Kim Tan and Hazel Ho.

Improv is a theatrical performance where most, if not all, of what is performed on stage is unscripted. Actors come up with the plot, characters, and dialogue spontaneously in a collaborative effort. Although improv does not necessarily have to be comedic in nature, many troupes prefer performing comedy. The two main types are short-form – 5-10 minute skits – and long-form, which is like an improvised play with a more complex narrative than a skit, and can range anywhere from half an hour to two hours.

Yale-NUS Improv is one of the longest-running student organisations on campus. Founded in 2013 by Kevin Low, Dylan Ho, and Christopher Tee from the Class of 2017, the group has grown over the years, performing unscripted comedy shows once a semester, as well as at the College’s Family Weekends and Experience Yale-NUS Weekends.

Members of the Yale-NUS Improv troupe posing after their performance. Image provided by Yale-NUS Improv.
Top row, from left: Nathaniel Mah, Belinda Cheng, Lesha Mansukhani, Chia Yaim Chong, and Roshan Singh.
Bottom row, from left: Siddharth Chatterjee, Gem Tan, Lim Ee Sing, and Jana Choo.

The current Yale-NUS Improv troupe is led by a trio of sophomores: Nathaniel Mah, Jana Choo, and Chia Yaim Chong (Class of 2020). The group put on a 45-minute performance at the festival, playing a few short-form games before ending with a long-form scene about an old man’s quest for a long-lost magic plant, which had the audience roaring with laughter.

Jana said that she enjoyed the improv workshops offered at the event. “The best workshop I attended was with Jonathan Pitts, a well-known improviser from Chicago troupe The Second City,” she recalled. “He rained nuggets of wisdom for three hours straight, and I was constantly learning something from him every minute of that workshop. It was mind blowing.” While watching the other teams perform at the festival, she also came to realise that if the performer is having fun, the audience has fun too. “There were some scenes which were less technically skilled, but watching the improvisers on stage having a great time was a show in and of itself,” she said.

First-time improviser Lim Ee Sing (Class of 2021) enjoyed watching the other teams and seeing the different forms and styles of improv. “It really opened up my eyes to the endless possibilities of improv, especially because I was not exposed to it much before I entered college,” she said. She also admired the spontaneity of the other performers, “They didn’t seem to have any hesitation starting a scene when there was nothing but an empty stage. I was so impressed by their confidence.”

When asked how it was different performing for a public audience than performing on campus, the members had different opinions. Belinda Cheng (Class of 2021) shared, “Since you are more familiar with the audience on campus, you know what interests them, what will entertain them, and what limits you can test. Whereas for a more general public audience it is much more challenging, because you have to make your performance entertaining to all different ages and backgrounds.” Gem Tan (Class of 2019) offered another perspective. “The troupe makes it a point not pander to the Yale-NUS audience, even when we’re performing for the College,” she noted. “When you take out the inside jokes, what’s funny is pretty universal.”

May Contain Nuts introduce themselves to the audience. From left: Benjamin Leong, Kevin Low, Dylan Ho, Parag Bhatnagar, Evannia Handoyo, and Joshua Wong.
Image provided by Yeo Wei Lun and the Improv Company.

Also performing at the festival was May Contain Nuts, a group of Yale-NUS alumni. Formed soon after graduating from the College in 2017, the group comprises improv veterans and relative newcomers alike. This is the first time the Nuts (as they are known) have performed on a public stage, and they entertained audiences with a half-hour set in which a short-form game was used to inspire their long-form scene, a tale about a giraffe kingdom and the acceptance of its new leader.

The Nuts enjoyed interacting with the performers from overseas. Improv veteran Joshua Wong said, “I really liked interacting with improvisers from different countries, many of whom had different, hilarious and compelling takes on common life issues.” Evannia Handoyo, who started performing improv with the Nuts last year, added, “It just goes to show that we carry so much culture with us everywhere we go, and this festival was such a fun way to share and celebrate that.”

No journey is without its difficulties, however – many Nuts noted that scheduling is a lot harder when everyone has jobs. “It’s a challenge to find a time where we can get everyone to meet for rehearsal on a regular basis,” said Parag Bhatnagar. “To be able to continue doing something you love once you start working is tough, so I’m glad we’ve managed to figure it out somewhat.” Joshua quipped, “It’s an increasingly rare and celebrated occasion when all six of us are able to make it for practice.”

Despite the challenges, the group hopes to continue putting on more shows and establishing themselves in the Singapore improv scene. “It’s great that improv lets me meet up with alumni friends on a regular basis,” said Joshua. “Regularly touching base with people I’ve known for a while has helped me with the transition from college to the next phase of life.”

“It’s good to learn to face life with a good dose of humour and not taking yourself too seriously,” said Evannia. “Learn to be silly sometimes.”