An Unlikely Group Turned Family: The Story of the Improv Team


Katianna Mansfield, Staff Writer

A lone boy stands in the center of the stage. Lights beating down on him from every angle, he stares without reserve into the awaiting audience before him. Time passes by, getting more awkward every second. Eventually it is believed that this young man will not be saying anything. Perhaps he has stage fright, or maybe his true talent is silence.

Just when the anticipation is at a decline, he sings with a crackly, mid-soprano pitch and circulating, awkward “dance moves.”

“I’m a little teapot short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout.”

He walks off without another word.

This is how the show starts.

Improv Central, the most spontaneous show in the school, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. With its spectacular arrival, Robbin Demeester has brought back into the picture an old friend by the name of John Donovan, the original creator of the show.

“I’d have to say, as I’ve taken on this director role, it’s become something different from when I was actually performing,” Donovan said. “I can’t really give you my before definition, but now it’s really about teamwork and seeing this great, talented group of kids come from complete strangers to best friends, and being very confident in any scenario that arises out of them, onstage and off.”

Donovan directed the show his last two years in high school. He had that director’s experience already, and he knew the show for what it truly was.

The most basic form of comedy that caters to its audience is the kind that involves its audience, and that is precisely what Donovan wants to bring back into the show for its anniversary.

“My vision for these kids is to make everyone in this house feel like they’re a part of the team,” Donovan said. “[I want] the team feel the audience’s energy, and have this sort of back and forth motion. That’s what I would really say getting back to the roots of improv is. It’s just the flow of energy between the audience and the cast as they create something together, not a sketch-based improvisation. The core of it is people, hands down.

Each improv actor believes the most significant part of the show is its audience. With no audience, there is no humor, and with no humor, there is no improv.

“The whole show is built around the audience. It’s their feedback and their ideas that really shape every scene and every skit,” Senior Student Director Emily Toppen said. “That’s what we’re going to be using: their ideas. So the audience being there is super, super important.”

Getting the crowd jazzed up and raring to participate is the goal of the cast.

The team is there to entertain with the suggestions, design, and involvement of its watchers. Without that, they have no show.

“With improv, we really feed off the audience. If we get out there and we see people are laughing, smiling, elbowing the people next to them, we feed off that. We get energized and we start doing more,” junior Josh Nasser said. “If we look out and they’re just staring at us, we’re faltering there. What’s really fun is in improv, we have a lot of audience participation. During the show, we’re going to pull people up on stage and have them be a part of the game or the sketch. It’s really going to connect the audience and the stage and break down that fourth wall.”

While the audience is the most significant part, the main organs that keep everything chugging along inside the body, the true heart and soul of improv is its cast as a whole. Where this starts is the relationship between every cast member at its utmost strength.

“I really like being a part of this team and how close we’ve gotten,” junior Ellie Matelic said. “It’s a lot of teamwork and having to rely on each other, and you have to be able to help each other out, which I think is really good for team building and skill work.”

Every member of the team had something or another to say about the terrific people they have the privilege of working with and how they have helped each other grow into better individuals.

While some members have been onstage countless times and have the confidence to prove it, others were less outgoing. Improv brought out in them this profound certainty of themselves, an acceptance of who they genuinely are and the ability to show it to the world without consciousness.

“What improv let’s these kids do is, in a completely safe environment, be vulnerable and just open up to each other,” Donovan said. “Say ‘This is who I am and this is what I bring to the table. I have to trust you to make this work and you have to trust me.’ The ability to trust and be vulnerable and then laugh about it and feel great, that’s invaluable.

“I don’t know if it helps them grow up or changes how they view relationships, but I’ve certainly seen a completely different cast from day one until now. I can’t wait for you to see them interact. It’s infectious, this energy that they give off to one another.”

Practicing with each other in this non-judgmental, exposed setting where minds spiral off wit and unique ideas one after another, these kids build up a capacity to do so without fault.

“It’s helped with my confidence in most situations because with the constant practice of improvisational skills. It allows your mind to feel more natural in intense situations and you handle them with more care and accuracy,” junior Matt Wilson said.

While teaching these students beneficial social skills such as the capability to speak their mind and the confidence to do so, improv has also provided valuable life lessons that will stick with them for years to come.

“There are a lot of situations in improv where you just have to jump in with no plan, and I think that’s very applicable to life in some respects,” senior Samuel Ovens said. “Sometimes, you just need to dive in without too much forethought.”

An important rule of improv is to never say “no.” One has to go along with the storyline brought about by the audience and their partners and add to it as they see fit, a “yes, and…” in response.

Donovan believes these students, whether they know so or not, have always been saying “yes, and…” to life prior to improv, and that’s how they ended up onstage.

“There’s so much uncertainty in our lives, and having the skills to listen and actually hear and having the ability to say ‘yes’ to any situation and confidently to pursue that idea doesn’t change you, but it empowers you,” Donovan said.

Every member asked believed wholeheartedly that improv changed them as people, and it empowered them to do and be more.

“I feel like everyone coming out of there has way more presence,” Emily said. “They’re really not afraid to be themselves anymore, no matter what kind of situation.”

Each student coming from a different walk of life with different dreams, ideals, and opinions as a separate individual came together to form one single masterpiece of diversity.

They all have one deep-seated trait they all share that unifies them onstage, and that is their love of the act.

“They love performing. That’s how they express themselves,” Donovan said. “How often do you get to do what you’re passionate about with all of your best friends? I love seeing that passion ignite in them, practice is over and they want to keep going, that’s amazing. It’s such a cool thing to see, especially in teenagers when the world says ‘No, don’t be passionate about what you want.’”

The vulnerability and growing together over a duration of time have brought these students so unbelievably close, forming an “inseparable bond” among the whole group.

They care about each other, accept and welcome each other, and work exceptionally well with each other.

“This whole theater will be a community come October 1st,” Donovan said, “They’re going to leave with something that says ‘yes.’ That’s what I really think the audience is going to take away, that improv mindset, as well as an aching diaphragm from laughing.”

The Best Memories of Improv (from the cast themselves):

John Donovan: It was the first day we moved into the auditorium. We’d been practicing for three months over the summer at Cascade Park, and you sort of reach a stagnation at the end of the summer. I was getting ready to go back to school and they were getting ready to go back to school. That first day of rehearsal I hadn’t seen them for a week because I was just moving in. I come in here, and they’re all already singing, dancing, being silly, and I wasn’t even here yet. We just did a ton of exercise to really feel the space. There’s so much energy and momentum and it just hit like that. Ever since then, we’ve been riding this amazing wave. The show is coming faster and we’re ready for it, let’s go. These kids, they have a fire. It’s passion; and that was the first time I got to see that here. I think being in the school changed that.


Emily Toppen: My favorite memory would have to be when we went to see River City Improv’s show one Saturday night. We had a great time watching another team and getting inspired and energized for our own show. Afterward we went to Ming Ten and just had a great time together. Also, the bonding party we did was super fun. The kids had a scavenger hunt all over Grand Rapids, came back to my house for pizza, and then we all saw Finding Dory together.

Josh Nasser: The week after they released the cast list, we got together for a bonding party. It was a town-wide scavenger hunt. Everyone piled into two cars and John was texting us clues around Grand Rapids. We had to get a stranger to wear an FHC t-shirt and take a selfie with us or spell out “improv” with our bodies in a hotel lobby. So just driving around in a couple cars having a lot of fun. That was really when you got to know everybody. It was really cool.

Connor Dowley: Since we have been rehearsing since June, we have come to make many inside jokes with each other, many that can’t be said for reasons, but my favorite memory is either this scavenger hunt our director sent us on all over Grand Rapids or just hanging out in my basement laughing, working on the show, or playing Super Smash Brothers.

Mitch Banks: When we all went to Craig’s Cruisers with the team and then hung out at my best friend’s house. That’s one of the best memories because I felt like a part of the family.

Ellie Matelic: One of my favorite memories would be whenever we would go to Cascade Park we would play this game called “Bunny, Bunny” and “Big Booty.’ We’d be in the middle of Cascade Park chanting at each other, and people would walk their dogs past us and they’d be like, ‘What is going on over there?’ We just looked like idiots, and it was so funny. It was definitely one of my best memories, watching people’s reactions to what we were doing and how they would laugh and get a kick out of what we were doing and want to know what was going on.

Katie Hicks: Team bonding. We went on a scavenger hunt throughout the whole entire city that our leader, John, sent us on. It took us around downtown Grand Rapids to Ada and everywhere. We all got to be together and go up to strangers as part of our scavenger hunt. It was a good bonding experience.

Callum Ovens: If I had to pick, it would definitely be when John told me to keep playing a certain game. I can’t remember which one, but he thought I was funny. It really made my day to have that kind of support from him. He’s honestly one of the funniest people I’ve met, and I feel so lucky to have been chosen for improv this year.

Matthew Wilson: It’s all been just great. It’s like choosing the 11/10 from all the 10/10 moments, but I would have to say that our first bonding party was great. It was this big goose chase that John led us on all around Grand Rapids. It was a fun time because we all grew a little spite for John as a team.

Samuel Ovens: This one time, we were all at practice and started to pretend to be fish. We started saying “glub glub” over and over and flapping our arms like fish flippers. The next day, when John came back from MSU, we all surrounded him “glubbing” and dragged him to a watery grave.

Mark Kemp: My favorite memory would probably be our first practice. We were doing an exercise where we partner up and act out a scene, and once we were done with that scene, we went to someone else. Even though I didn’t know anyone, there was still no awkwardness or embarrassment. It was like we were all instantly friends.