Improv comedy troupe Scared Scriptless is making it up as it goes

Lindsay Kucera
The cast of Scared Scriptless improv.
Courtesy of Scared Scriptless
Erik turns down Mary Jo's proposal of marrage.
Courtesy of Scared Scriptless

The adage runs something like this: The second most common fear is death; the first is public speaking. In other words, more people would probably rather die than step on a stage and risk making a fool of themselves.

Anchorage's Scared Scriptless has no such fear -- the improvisational comedy troupe is more than willing to risk embarrassment for a laugh.

The troupe started in 2000 at Side Street Espresso on G Street, the brainchild of three friends looking to branch out in the local theater scene. As the group grew, they performed at Cyrano's Off-Center Playhouse and Alaska Wildberry Products before moving into the Snow Goose Theatre, where they now perform year-round on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month.

For each performance, five or six of the troupe members participate in a series of improv games, taking suggestions from the audience and acting out scenes off the cuff. The scenes can go anywhere and often do -- from Egypt to a bad house party to the Death Star.

The actors feed off each other, finding novel ways to surprise the audience and other members of the troupe. Sometimes they're farmers or porcupines or inanimate objects. Maybe they're climbing out of a submarine or having a baby or writing a letter to the principal.

"There's too many moving parts for us to have something preloaded for this," said John Parsi, a troupe member who by day works as a lawyer. "You've got an audience that throws out suggestions; you have a game that has a certain set of rules; you've got the people you're playing with who are going to throw out suggestions that you're going to have to accept and respond to. There's no way we could script that."

Most of them aren't professional actors. Some are students, engineers, graphic designers, managers or educators, but each had something that drew them to theater and to improv. Scared Scriptless, for the troupe members, is a labor of love.

"It's an overall skill of adaptability," said Warren Weinstein, the troupe's education director. "You take a range of people, who outside of this function are all professionals -- everything we do (on stage) translates across. No one would say that what we do here doesn't come across in some fashion in our daily lives. And to take that a little further -- nothing we do here doesn't improve (some) aspect of us in our professional lives."

For Scared Scriptless, improv boils down to two things -- communication and play.

"What we do anyone can do," said Weinstein. "If you watch a group of kids and then watch us, it's the same thing."

"Kids know how to play, and we as adults forget that," agreed Jason Martin, the group's director and one of its founders. "And improv is just getting back to that playful state -- turning off the censors, turning off the filters and just getting back to a place where whatever I say is OK. Whatever I do is fun, and whomever I'm playing with knows that we're there to play. Getting back to that playful place is exactly what we're trying to do on stage."

In addition to hosting occasional improv workshops, Scared Scriptless also has a weekly "Improv Playground," where people interested in trying improv games can come and play in a no-pressure environment.

"It's not a learning environment in the sense that you're not going to be critiqued --you're not going to get homework; you're not going to be drilled with the rules of improv," said troupe member Ryan Horn, who helped spearhead the playground. "It's a way to dip your toe in the water, play some games and do some warm-ups and just have fun. That's the No. 1 thing -- that everyone that comes to the playground is laughing and having fun."

Part of the fun is learning to ignore your internal censor, though the actors said they attempt to be as accessible and family friendly as possible (occasionally they will host a 21-and-older "Blue Show" that is even less inhibited). They try for what Horn called "the smart laughs," the ones that came from well-done jokes and witty scenes and not just the easy laughs from the potty humor that can happen when you mix alcohol and interactive performance.

In a recent performance, Horn was given the prompt that he would be dying in childbirth per the audience suggestions. In an interview after the performance, he mentioned how he unconsciously started censoring himself because his wife (a new mother) was in the audience.

"When we're in our heads censoring ourselves, we're not doing the art form justice," Horn said. "Tonight with the childbirth prompt, the first thing that I thought with my wife in the audience was, 'I could be in so much trouble. I could be sleeping on the couch tonight if I'm not careful.' And so I was thinking, 'Should I say this, should I not say this?' and the art form suffered for it."

The players each talked about the freedom they have that doesn't exist in many performing arts.

"Every time is organic, everything is new," Parsi said. "Every show you see with us you're never going to see again."

By Lindsay Kucera
Daily News correspondent