M ost Monday nights, a small band of New Haveners gathers to practice between the bright white walls of Artspace. The group is called Tiny Dictator, and its goal is to get big laughs.
The means is long-form improvisational comedy, a craft that’s been around since the late 1960s but seems like it’s just now catching on outside large cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco. During a long-form improv show, usually somewhere between two and 10 people (Tiny Dictator is 10-strong) walk onstage and ask the audience for a suggestion to get them started. The suggestion could be a single word, or an entire phrase. Someone from the audience yells something out like “Bananas!” or “Chef Boyardee!” and the troupe takes it from there, using the suggestion as a springboard into a series of short, comedic sketches.
If this sounds a lot like Whose Line Is It Anyway? so far, it’s about to sound very different: in long-form improv, the sketches happen in rapid succession for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, in a single performance thread. It’s as if a one-act play is unfolding spontaneously before the audience’s eyes.
Throughout the show, characters in initial scenes may pop up again if the actors can work them in. Sometimes an overarching theme will come together. Other times, it might just amount to a pile of (hopefully) fun and funny scenes that don’t have much in common. However a particular performance plays out, there’s a unique shared experience between performers and audience; both groups are seeing the show for the first and last time. In improv, every set is both opening night and closing night.
Since July, Tiny Dictator has been rehearsing and workshopping, now gearing up to tackle its first two gigs: a March 14 engagement in Hartford alongside the seasoned Sea Tea Improv, and, on April 18, the group’s hometown debut at Artspace.
Tiny Dictator’s origin story is in at least one sense like its sketches—it developed rather organically. Last year, Eliza Caldwell, one of the group’s founders who developed a love for improv while studying at UConn some years ago, got ahold of Kenneth Reveiz, who heads up New Haven’s Free Skool, a tuition-free school that offers DIY courses from website design to bicycle maintenance to home fermentation. Caldwell proposed an 8-week course in which she’d teach her students the basics of long-form improvisation. Reveiz loved the idea and approved the course immediately.
The class, Caldwell says, was a total blast. She found herself among eager and excited students—some mystified and in awe of this newfound art form, others already acquainted with it and looking to brush up on their skills. After 8-weeks of running around in a small classroom making comedy, it was clear that no one wanted things to end. While sitting around at the Cask Republic post-class, Caldwell and a few of her students made a pact to start a performance group, in earnest. In June, the fledgling group held auditions to fill a few final spots and by July, rehearsals began.
The troupe brings together a nice array of ages and experiences, from a 25-year old grad student to a 42-year-old cognitive neuroscience researcher. That sort of eclecticism bodes particularly well in improv, as each performer can bring their unique point of view to each scene, making shows more interesting.
Initially, Caldwell led the group in a sort of dual director/performer role. Since then, Tiny Dictator has installed George Kourous, an experienced improviser and lawyer, as the director. Kourous took the class, too, and calls himself a “comedy nerd who voraciously consumes all things improv.” He also took classes with the aforementioned Sea Tea Improv.
Kourous runs a laid-back but fun rehearsal, moving through some high-energy warmups before getting into scene work. At a recent practice, some choice scenes included a husband and wife hashing out their marital woes while downhill skiing and a pair of opinionated squirrels stealthily analyzing human behavior (pictured first above). During these practices, the group sometimes attracts an ephemeral audience of one or two—curious folks passing by Artspace on the sidewalk and wondering what the heck is going on.
Of course, at any given moment, the players in Tiny Dictator are trying to figure that out, too.
Written by Jake Goldman. Photographed by Dan Mims.