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Arts & Entertainment

Nightlife: ImprovBoston

A small stage produces big laughs

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It’s easy to walk right past ImprovBoston’s theater in Central Square. There’s no flashy sign to lure people in, no sound of pounding bass from the bar spilling onto the sidewalk. But step inside the door any night, and you’ll hear constant raucous laughter, confirmation that this is one of the top places to see the work of some of New England’s best comedians. Established in 1982, the company has earned numerous accolades, including “Best of Boston” by The Phoenix, The Improper Bostonian, and The Weekly Dig.

At ImprovBoston you’ll see sketch, stand-up, and improv comedy acts, and as well it has a renowned school for aspiring comedians. The company began in Boston before moving across the river to Cambridge in 1993. (It’s been at the current space—a former Asian grocery store on Prospect Street—since 2008.)

We stopped by on a recent Thursday night to catch the popular Harold Night show. Named for a classic long-form improv format, it features two teams of comedians who are given 25 minutes each to create a world of interconnected ideas and characters based on an object suggested by the audience. The night we were there, the first team, Intervention! was assigned the theme of “apple.” First they created a hilarious scene where a computer company—set in the days before Apple or Microsoft—is brainstorming to come up with a brand name. They discard “Windows” and “Apple,” enumerating all the reasons neither name would work. In another scene, a street vendor tries to sell an apple to a man obsessed with apples, only to be accused of underselling the revered object. The actors’ quick and convincing character transformations and unpredictable punch lines kept the audience laughing along with them. Some of the recurring characters and scenes stuck in our minds for days.

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With maximum seating for 60, ImprovBoston provides an intimate venue for comedians to showcase their material.

The other team performing that evening, War Cupcake, worked their show around the word “milkshake.” Their energy and talent for physical comedy were apparent from the start, when in unison they began spinning like a blender. The most memorable skit: several men were gathered at a local bar, confiding in the bartender over milkshakes instead of cocktails. At one point, the bartender, concerned about a patron’s excessive drinking, told him it was time to cut back. The customer said he had no faith that he could stop drinking, and the only thing he could still fit into were his sweatpants. The comics’ quick wit kept them—and the audience—constantly surprised. This was improv at its best.

The show closed with a three-round jam, which included audience members who had completed classes in ImprovBoston’s comedy training program. The comedians were given a specific set of instructions for each round. For the first, they were told that when scenes changed, at least one character from the previous scene had to remain on stage. The round became one long, connected narrative, whose plot was hijacked each time the scene changed, much to the amusement of the audience and the one comedian left on stage. The second round began with participants building a room out of objects from their imagination, each adding an item or two (their frat house had a stuffed donkey and a stack of textbooks holding up a table leg). They then launched their skits, set in that room. The jam culminated with a set of skits that had to begin with a line suggested by the audience. Each round was skillfully imaginative. The jam was reason enough for a return visit.

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Harold Night skits are based on audience-suggested themes, so the show looks different every night.

ImprovBoston hosts and performs a number of events, ranging from Prom! The Improvised Prom (Fridays at 10 p.m. through October) to the award-winning Mainstage show each Friday and Saturday night, featuring the club’s top talent in an ever-changing freeform show that includes games, storytelling, music, and audience participation.

Gag’s Bar, in the front of the theater, serves beer, wine, soft drinks, and snacks. By snacks, we mean the kind found at a concession stage. So if you’re hungry, plan to eat ahead of time. And if you’re the retiring sort, not to worry. While most of the shows at ImprovBoston are based on audience input, participation is not required.

ImprovBoston has shows Wednesday through Sunday nights. Start times and ticket prices vary by show. Reduced admission is offered for students with a valid student ID. Purchase tickets or see a list of upcoming shows here. Tickets can also be purchased at the box office an hour before the first show. ImprovBoston, 40 Prospect St., Central Square, Cambridge, accepts all major credit cards; phone: 617-576-1253. By public transportation, take an MBTA Red Line train to Central Square and walk half a block down Prospect Street.

This is part of a series featuring Boston nightlife venues of interest to the BU community. If you have any suggestions for places we should feature, leave them in the comments section below.

Frank Brogie can be reached at brogief@bu.edu.

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