After all the quince jokes and sponsor shout-outs wrapped up, the early show on Saturday night at the Stumptown Improv Festival opened with a performance from one of Curious Comedy Theater's resident teams, Hood, whose rapid-fire approach kept their appearance from dragging (a common enough pitfall when you have that many people onstage). At the beginning of their set, a series of times on cards was given to the folks in the lighting booth, each a runtime for a designated scene. The performers didn't know when blackouts were coming, giving an air of unpredictability to what followed—a motley collection of absurd scenes.
It was exciting to see Hood come up with so many different premises over a short time span (divorce as a sport! Fastpasses to heaven! the travails of a conservative dad whose sons are all strippers!) and even more impressive to see them come up with throughlines, however dashed-off, in a format that, on its face, seems to eschew them. There was one storyline in particular, about school-mandated sex ed at a high school after a "kissfest" incident at prom, that included the delightful line "This is a public school, not a Waldorf school." But even when storylines didn't return, it was just a nice change of pace to see a collection of local performers—including Jenn Anderson, Stumptown co-founder Leon Anderson, and Curious Comedy Theatre's Artistic Director Stacey Hallal—cycling through different premises like pros. It was impossible to get bored.
Canadian duo Virginia Jack—Nicole Passmore and Briana Rayner—followed, and theirs was the performance I was most looking forward to. Unfortunately, it suffered a lot from what I like to call Men Wanting to Be Perceived as Clever Syndrome. This is a performance ailment in which an audience member (typically male, though not always) seeks to have a one-on-one conversation with the performer by shouting things out that seem very clever to that person, but usually are not to a broader audience. This is a selfish, derailing thing to do, and I see it happen a lot. It's especially common at improv shows, where audience suggestions are rampant. For Virginia Jack's one-act play format, Passmore and Rayner asked the audience to come up with a location ("WHITE HOUSE!" shouted one man shrilly, the first of the performance's disruptions), and then had an audience member choose a location from those suggested. The audience member combined two possibilities to suggest that the play take place in "a treehouse in Atlantis," which perhaps seemed clever but actually had the effect of hamstringing Passmore and Rayner's otherwise sprightly, fast-paced performance by forcing them to explain why these "two completely disparate things" were found together.
Gentle PSA to improv audience members: This is not about you. You don't need to provide your performers with the most clever subjects, according to you. Too often, "trying to be clever" is what makes improv fail. Usually, this is when performers themselves are working too hard to be clever, but it turns out it also applies to audiences. So if you're asked for a suggestion, just say whatever comes to the forefront of your weird lizard brain first, and don't worry so much about appearances. This obviously doesn't apply to the vast majority of the audiences at these shows, many of whom are improvisers and actors themselves, and I wouldn't harp on it if it weren't A Problem.
After that rocky beginning, Virginia Jack's performance was funny but didn't seem as solid as previous iterations I've seen. This was really a shame, since they're one of the best improv duos I've seen, with an ironclad format and strong character work. They deserved better.