Improv: In the moment with UAA's Ad-lib Alchemists

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

UAA's Ad-Lib Alchemists

The Ad-Lib Alchemists in three rows: (front) Rebecca Gilman and Shawn Eby; (middle) Angie Colavecchio (maroon sweater), Kimberly Allely and Taran Haynes; (back) Jake Beauvais and Adi Davis. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

File this under things I didn't know about UAA:

Your campus has a resident improv troupe called the Ad-lib Alchemists! They'll perform next on March 11 at 8 p.m. in the black box, or Harper Studio. Better get that on your calendar; it'll be here before you know it.

Like you, these artists are busy with school, jobs, life and love. Three from the troupe will appear in Eurydice when it runs Feb. 26 through March 6.  But they still find time to commit to the zany fun and intense focus that is improv. Once a month they manage a two-hour practice to prepare for their shows, mentored by John Hanus, artistic director and performer with local improv troupe Urban Yeti.

Most recently, on Jan. 22, UAA players joined improv troupes from Bartlett and Chugiak in UAA's black box theatre for a community fundraiser. Many games and much laughter later, guided by Scared Scriptless's Warren Weinstein, the packed bleachers yielded almost $700 in support of Dare to Care, an Anchorage nonprofit that feeds hungry school kids.


So meet the crew: Jake Beauvais (Orpheus in Eurydice), Angie Colavecchio (a Stone in the Greek chorus of Eurydice), Adi Davis, Shawn Eby, Rebecca Gilman, Taran Haynes and Kimberly Allely (Eurydice in Eurydice).

Five students (freshman Angie started in the fall at UAA, a graduate of Bartlett's thriving improv scene) plus two just-turned alumni comprise the troupe. And no, they aren't all theatre majors.

There's a civil engineer already working for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (Shawn) and another (Rebecca) already on the business side of the Alaska Center for Performing Arts (that's the PAC to most of us.)

There's an economics major (Adi) bent on finding the intersection between environmentalism and economics. Several combine journalism and theatre (Taran, and Angie), but another (Kimberly) is a legal studies major with a paralegal associate degree. True story: She just added a theatre minor after one of her faculty mentors noticed her abundant stage activism and said, "Face it, you're a theatre kid!"

The troupe hierarchy is flat; they decide things by consensus. Kimberly also serves as their manager. How did that task fall to her? "I am ...  kind of OCD when it comes to being organized and having good management," she confessed. Spend five minutes with Kimberly, and you'll ask her to run your life, too. Take a number.

Why improv?

Last Sunday, the troupe skipped fun in the winter sunshine to gather mid-day in ARTS 117 for a two-hour shift with mentor John Hanus. Before they got started, I asked a few of them why this, why improv?

Sounding like a logical engineer, Shawn said simply, "I don't know why you'd develop only one side of your brain and ignore the other." Adi began improv as an exercise to strengthen her acting, and then realized, "I love improv-ing!"

For Kimberly, improv has helped build confidence on stage. "It's one thing to do a show where the words are on the page ... but with improv, you don't know what you're going to say or do. It's the idea of taking what your scene partner gives you, and running with it, and trying to progress the scene to something interesting and fun to watch."

If that sounds intimidating, or perhaps a disaster in the making, Kimberly assures that improv is a craft that can be cultivated.

"Some come to it naturally, some need easing in," she said. "Some are better at scenes that are wordy, and some are better at scenes that are mime-ful. We work to progress in all of find more strengths and to strengthen our weaknesses."

Getting a workout

Their commitment Sunday was evident as they played intensely for two hours. The effort began with an exercise every human should probably copy when it's time to focus.

Urban Yeti's Hanus had them take a deep breath, close their eyes and hold up a cupped palm. Then, as he wiggled his fingers into his palm, "I want you to take all the stuff preoccupying your mind ... all the worries from last week ... all the stuff coming up next week ... I want you to roll it all up into a tiny tiny ball in the middle of your brain....and get rid of it!"

What followed next were synapse-quick exercises as members bounced syllables and sounds-zip, zap, zop-around the circle, moving faster and faster.  "Connect to your partner," Hanus urged, "get into a rhythm."

They played "Hot Spots," one person in the middle of the circle singing a song, tapped out by an incoming member with a new song.

Repeat, Hanus urged. "No holding back! Pretend you're 10 shots in at a karaoke bar!" Still not satisfied, he challenged, "Bigger! ... Bigger!"

Later he told them, "It's not about the song, it's about getting out of your comfort zone...If a scene is floundering, what can you throw in there to bring it back up?"

Long-form muscles

They moved on to scene work, two players at a time, no script, making something out of nothing. Here's one Shawn and Adi had fun with:

Shawn stoops to pick up an imaginary heavy pipe, balancing it with care on his shoulder as he crosses in front of Adi. "That's illegal!" Adi barks. "Go back and pick it up again. Bend your knees this time!" Shawn complies perfectly.

"Scene!" says Hanus, stopping the action. "That one matters!" he smiles, meaning it worked. Shawn tossed something to Adi, she responded, and so did he.

Another exercise: They delivered short monologues, prompted by a single word- high heels, soccer ball, hulahoop, cancer. Then, the "ultimate word," break up. Hanus chose three of the break-up monologues and had players develop scenes, and then rework each scene three times. Less about humor, this was more about working their long-form improv muscles.

"Working with John has given us the idea of truth," Kimberly said, "that the scene is relatable to things that really happen. Less the "zany aliens invading Mars and demanding cheese," and more finding reality. "Truth in your scene makes it even more relevant."

What they're proud of

As the Alchemists' manager, Kimberly, said she was speaking for the whole group when she listed what makes them proud. First on the list is initiative.

"We wanted to do this," she said. "Nothing existed here; no teacher said. 'Do improv.' We do it on our own. We sustain it on our own." They're even pondering sticking together as improv performers after college.

Another stripe they've worked hard to earn is the alchemy in their name. It comes from their penchant for mashing different improv games together, an effort to change things up and add freshness. A recent invention paired "Master-Servant-Disaster" with "New Choice." We'll let you demand to see it at their next show. Also ask for "Silly-Stinky-Sexy" and "Objection!"

They've performed off-campus. Shawn's brother, Tim, is a burlesque dancer with Sweet Cheeks Cabaret, described as a "classy, upscale dance show." For their October "Flash of Fringe" event at Mad Myrna's, the Alchemists got free tickets in exchange for entertaining during 15-minute intermissions.

"It was a great opportunity," Kimberly said. "We're so used to college audiences, this was good for us to deal with a completely different audience, maybe a little older, from all different backgrounds. Or at least they didn't all have UAA in common."

Don't miss the fun March 11.

Oh, and if improv wiggles your toes-the troupe may have room for one or two more. Send inquiries to Kimberly Allely at

Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement

Creative Commons License "Improv: In the moment with UAA's Ad-lib Alchemists" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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