By Dawn Aerts
Iron County Today
CEDAR CITY–When T.J. Penrod, Ryan ‘Rev’ McLean and their Off the Cuff improv group plunges onto the stage, almost anything can tumble out–and usually does. Their pastime is akin to jumping off a cliff without a parachute, hoping the audience will throw a rope or just laugh.
It’s mostly short-form improv with unpredictable situations and a dash of slapstick. “We like to open a show with a three-person game we call ‘RANT,” said McLean of the laugh barometer. In short, they find out what annoys people: the response may be anything from roadwork to weather. A chuckle or a cheer to entertain the ‘funny bone.’
It was Dave Armour, Penrod, and his wife, Wendy, who launched the first improv ‘gig’ at the Grind Coffee House in 2004. They spent three more years at the Crystal Inn before transitioning to their club at 913 So. Main Street. Here, five to six improv players arrive on Friday nights to get ‘laughs’ in the longest-running comedy hub in Cedar City.
“The fun thing is that none of us have a solid idea of what will happen and what can happen in any moment,’ said McLean of the mission to delight. “I mean, we kind of have an idea, so maybe there’s a line, or maybe it’s how your stage partners respond to you in a certain way, in an awkward situation.”
While their number one mission is to educate in the field of improv, and theater, or coaching students on just being yourself on stage, it’s also about letting of your fear.
Penrod says it was old Saturday Night Live episodes that became their starting point for humor. “The sketch-work of characters like Jim Belucchi, Bill Murray, and Chris Farley are probably the best example in modern improv,” said Penrod. “But all of this extreme work came out of places like Second City (Chicago) way before SNL.”
Zany reactions are essential to every routine.
The second half of the show is scene-based as the entire team jumps into the fray. “I was hooked on 1970s Carol Burnett shows, with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman; and the Monty-Python series,” said McLean of their mutual appreciation for vintage Abbott and Costello films and shows like, ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’
McLean and Penrod have much in common on-stage, and off. Both earned a bachelor-of-arts degree at Southern Utah University in theater and directing, and both are full-time teachers in their ‘day job’ at Kolob Canyon School. They are well-known for their work in Neil Simon Festival productions — where McLean recently directed ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ – a canny parody of Chekhovian drama.
But it was Penrod’s high school drama coach who first encouraged Penrod to pursue his penchant for comedy. “I felt pretty good about my 10th grade experience on stage,” said Penrod of the high school team he organized and who still perform there as the ‘Off Beats.’
“Improv players fall mostly into three categories,” said McLean. “There are the pirates who jump in and deal with whatever consequences they find; the Ninja’s who speculate, say their ‘piece’ and then get out; and there are robots – what I call the analytical, logical types.”
No two shows are ever the same.
“We ‘ve all dabbled in the long-sketch,” or stand-up comedy, said Penrod of their web show, ‘Funny Side Up’ that he describes as highlighting the pitfalls of a small town improve troupe. For McLean, straight-faced humor is the bread and butter of comedy – with a humorous strain that somehow surfaced in the family genes.
It is the witty, crazy antics of improv that keeps OTC players charged.
The OTC team has traveled to a variety of national venues from the Spectacles Improv Engine at STAGES theater in Orange County, Calif., to comedy and black box performances in Dublin, Ireland; Phoenix, Ariz., Chicago; Juneau, Alaska, Denver, Colo., and all over the Wasatch Valley.
While the Ccub has become a mainstay for college students, local fans and for out of town visitors looking for a comedy hub, the team also offer classes for all skill levels from Improv 202, to Games 101, and Drop In sessions for those with previous experience. “When we’re firing on ‘all cylinders’ we feel a little like super-heros,” said McLean of the experience.
Charter players like Wendy Penrod have become well-known for her ‘pirate’ inspired antics. “We invite other players to come and join in,” said McLean of weekends, “So it’s a chance for former alumni or more seasoned comics to sharpen their craft, and for the new talent we find along the way.”
This Fall, OTC will host their 10th annual Ye Old Improv competition in conjunction with USF High School Shakespeare competition featuring all types of improv, on Friday, Sept. 28 and Saturday, Sept. 29 at SUU.
According to McLean, Improv challenges players to live in character, respond in the moment and how they can play to audience reactions. “I was like 19 in the first show – back then, there were no stage lights, or sound system and I think we charged $ 1 to come in the door – we were pretty nervous about the first show, but 101 people showed up.”
Penrod reminds the OTC audience that no two shows are alike, and this show will never, ever be seen again. “You have to be there,” said McLean of improv routines, “It’s complicated.”
Caption: Off the Cuff improv players (left to right) T.J. Penrod and Ryan ‘Rev’ McLean are featured at 10 p.m., Fridays, with comedy team (not pictured) Wendy Penrod, Nate Machee and Dave Armour. The troupe offers sign-up classes for all skill levels, Fall, Winter and Spring at 913 So. Main St., Cedar City.