On a recent morning in the Great Room, a group of college students who call themselves The Purple Crayon of Yale came to perform for students, staff and faculty.
The name of this improvisational comedy group comes from the children’s story, “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” In the story, whatever Harold draws comes to life, in the same way that actors spontaneously conjure up scenes. And unlike art made with other implements, crayon marks cannot be erased; similarly, the actors can’t erase the marks they make on the stage.
“What we are about to do has never been done before and will never be done again!” The group’s main announcer bellowed an introduction. To warm up the audience, she then commanded students to yell out their first name and some names of pets. She even invited the students to practice shouting “Die!” so they could order actors off the stage for lackluster performance. Then the improvisation games began.
In the first game, actors fired one word back and forth to form an original sentence. One of the first back-and-forths resulted in the phrase “Somebody just jumped my gun!” Laughter erupted.
Next the actors assembled a courtroom. The announcer interrupted the scene to demand that one of the actors perform an “Oscar-winning moment.”
The defendant broke into a teary-eyed speech about walking down the street to find milk for her baby and getting arrested. She pointed into the audience, blaming “you and you and you!”
Then the announcer demanded a performance from the judge, who immediately stood up and pretended to reveal a normal man beneath the judge’s robes. He declared that there were no defendants or prosecutors because “we are all the same.” He continued into the audience pointing, “I am no different than you and you and you!”
As the scene progressed, this theme of calling out the audience continued, creating cacophonies of laughter, until the announcer ended the scene.
Then the announcer broke the stage into different emotion zones, asking the actors to exhibit a certain emotion every time they entered that zone. The actors began a scene about making toast for each other (a common practice at The Bay School). As each stepped into the center of the stage, the zone for the emotion melancholy, they both started to doubt their own needs for toast at all. What was the use of that buttery goldenness? Giggles spread through the audience.
Next, in a game called “Pillars,” the improvisation group took two student volunteers from the audience: Camden and Chase. The actors before them began a conversation about chickens on the farm, making the volunteers fill in sentences and words here and there. Per fill-in content from the volunteers, the chickens came from Mexico, which explained their high quality, making the farmer a millionaire. The conversation also revealed a dreaded tripping accident involving a kumquat, much to the amusement of the audience.
Playing to the quick and competing attentions of the onlookers, the improvisation group changed the game again. Suddenly actors were interrogating a prisoner, trying to guess the nature of her crime. The prisoner started listing sports played at The Bay School. The interrogator insisted, “It wasn’t what you were playing – it was who you were playing it with!”
The prisoner paused, baffled, and then responded, “It’s pretty hard being Beyoncé.”
The interrogator pressed on, “you were playing basketball where it’s not allowed!”
The prisoner proceeded to talk in the third person, defiantly stating that Beyoncé loves to play basketball at Panda Express. The prisoner began changing her response from Panda Express, to Macy’s and then finally just “the mall.” She completed her confession and the scene was over.
In the next game, actors narrated the levels of a video game while other actors executed the actions. On one level, declared the “farm level,” one actor grew a strawberry to earn extra points, only to have the berry destroyed by locusts. Moving on to the “outer space level,” one actor shouted the name of the video game: “Galacticon 3000!” Another announcer broke through the dialogue with, “15 years later!” indicating that the other actors had spent 15 years playing the video game. Smiles spread across the audience.
The actors then changed position to become granite sculptures, with one of them playing a sculptor bragging about their magnificence. Another actor came in and pretended to pour acid on the sculptures. The sculpture bodies melted and fell apart accordingly. “I wanted to teach you a lesson about failure,” the acid-pourer insisted.
“Thank you,” said the sculptor poignantly, “They’re so much more beautiful this way.” Laughter ensued.
The actors shifted the scene again to what the announcer called “Apocalypse World,” a land full of zombie dogs. You can imagine what that looked like.
The scenes continued to shift, spurring new fits of laughter from the audience at every turn and covering topics such as moving the Louvre to Japan and repopulating the earth after its destruction. The staff and faculty also got a kick out of the creativity.
When the group ended the final scene, one member told the audience they would all be sticking around to answer questions about college and improvisation. They introduced themselves:
Brett, a freshman majoring in philosophy
Natalie, a freshman majoring in classics
Jesse, a junior majoring in American studies
Sally, a junior (no major indicated)
Ruby, an American studies major (no year indicated)
Zeke , a senior majoring in cognitive science
Alexis, a senior majoring in anthropology
Students asked the group what their favorite improvisation warm-ups were and what got each actor into improvisation. One actor said she was inspired by Tina Fey and wants to be a playwright. Another talked about spending time with a fun group of people. Some of the actors had acted in theaters before while others had not.
The group then demonstrated the “bad rap” game in which they all sang together and purposefully foiled easy rhymes. For example, one student rapped, “What’s that over there? Not a rabbit, it’s a…” The next student shouted “moose!” to complete the sentence, and the game continued on in that fashion.
One student asked the actors how they practice improvisation. An actor replied that in basketball, one doesn’t know how a game will go, so one practices the skills necessary to perform well in the game.
Student Fiona asked about improvisation at colleges across the United States. The actors explained that they’ve been exposed to various other teams from other universities and were in fact performing with Stanford’s improvisation group that very evening.
Another student asked how the actors develop their creativity. The actors cited their other activities on campus and their diverse backgrounds. “The more you explore,” one actor said, “the more creative you are at thinking of different characters.” Another actor assured the audience that “everybody is creative” and our society has merely stifled our impulses, often for good reason. So practice helps for turning those inhibitions off. Another actor said that adding new voices to the group in the form of new members every year made each performance more creative and inspiring.
Lastly, a student asked what the actors do when they encounter pauses or roadblocks to performing on stage. The actors said that playing games in which they say the first thing that comes to mind helps. They reminded the audience that if you get lost or stuck on stage, there is a whole team of people in your group to support you.